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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at / Published Life BPC Weekly, 2005-10-09

Text: Ecclesiastes 3:1-9

"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?" (Ecclesiastes 3:1-9)

This passage of Scripture is often quoted in a very positive and optimistic manner, to teach that since there is a time and place for everything under the sun, we must be discerning and wise to choose the right time to do things (Note: This teaching itself is biblical, as Ephesians 5:15-17 will reveal). For example, the beginning of v.2 ("a time to die") has been heard at many a Christian funeral, and the end of v.3 ("a time to build up") has been used for many a church building project. Many well-meaning people have used this passage in that manner. I used to do the same until I studied this passage carefully and realized that it is not meant to be used that way at all. 

The most important consideration is the words "under the heaven" mentioned in v.1 which are restated in v.16 as "under the sun." This phrase is used 32 times in the book of Ecclesiastes, and always to indicate a humanistic worldview that is limited to things that are apparent to man and does not include any divine revelation from God. In the first 10 chapters Solomon limits himself to this view to see what the outcome of it would be. And this must caution us from drawing positive principles for life too early in the book. The real lessons for life are drawn in chapters 11 and 12.

Secondly, consider the question asked in v.9 which forms the climax to the 8 verses: "What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?" In other words � "What is the point of it all?" The writer is saying that since everything has its assigned time to happen, what is the use of trying to do anything? No matter how hard one tries, what has been fixed is fixed cannot be changed. The same thought is expressed in v.14 "whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it." It seems futile to change things since everything has already been predetermined by God. 

Thirdly, consider all the things mentioned in vv.1-8. If the passage teaches us to discern the right time to do the right thing, then it seems strange that some of the things mentioned do not seem to be right to do at any time: e.g. "a time to kill" (v.3) and "a time to hate" (v.8). Some explain that the killing here refers to capital punishment of those who deserve death, and that the hating here refers to hating evil. But if this was the writer's intention, why did he use such general terms? 

We also notice that the things in vv.1-8 come in pairs, and in each pair, one element is the opposite of the other element. Birth - Death; Planting - Plucking; Killing - Healing; Breaking down - Building up, etc. This strongly suggests that the writer is seeking to portray the whole range of human activity whether good or evil, whether justified or unjustified. And he is not recommending that they should be done, but merely stating that all these things do happen in this world. 

And this sometimes leads to the question, "Why does God allow sin and evil to happen in this world?" At the end of v.11 Solomon says that no man can understand this work of God from beginning to end. In v.17, he says that the best explanation (still without the benefit of special revelation from God) is to assume that all evil and wickedness will eventually be judged by God. 

The final consideration comes from the conclusion drawn in vv.18-19: "I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts. For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity." 

Such a view of life leads compellingly to a very pessimistic and even degrading view of man. If everything that happens is fixed and man cannot do anything at all to change it, then the obvious conclusion is that man is no better than an animal. The life of a pig is in the hands of the farmer who owns it. When the farmer decides that it is time for the pig to eat, it eats. When the farmer decides that it is time for the pig to die, it dies. The pig can do nothing about its life.

If we adopt this outlook of life (and we should not), then the only thing to do is to live like an animal, just for the present, with no thought of the future. This is stated in the last verse of this chapter, v.22 "Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?" This is the same as saying, "Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die." 

Many people today have adopted this philosophy of life. Their evolutionistic beliefs have led them to conclude that they are no better than animals, and that life is just an opportunity to indulge themselves to the limit, before they pass out of existence forever. This is called hedonism - a life of selfish unrestrained abandonment to every imaginable form of pleasure - eating, drinking, sex, drugs, and violence. Whatever happens to them depends on their 'fate.' If they are 'lucky' they would have many opportunities to enjoy wealth, health and pleasure. But if they are 'unlucky' and happen to be born into misery and suffering, then they have no choice but to accept their fate which cannot be changed. 

Fate is impersonal. One cannot talk to it, or beg for grace and mercy from it. It is capricious, cold and unfeeling and can easily be blamed for every misfortune. Fate has no absolutes or morals. Since it decides both good and evil, there is no difference between good and evil. A person can therefore take the greatest risks and commit the worst crimes to get whatever he wants. If fate is good he will get away with it, but if fate is bad he will be caught and simply have to face the consequences.

Thus far we have seen fatalism at work among those who do not believe in God's existence. But there are also Christians who are fatalistic. Because of their inadequate understanding of the sovereignty of God, they think that whether or not they take the initiative to witness to others, God will still save sinners. Whether they pray or not, makes no difference, since everything is already fixed by God and can never be changed. Let us be careful about the way we interpret God's sovereignty, lest we end up becoming fatalistic Christians. An accurate understanding of the sovereignty and will of God is one that is balanced with human responsibility. 

God is in Control of all Things

Whether we recognize it or not, we can only do things because God has willed them. If something is not included in God's sovereign will, no amount of willing or planning on our part can force it to happen. We can do anything that we want to do, but only as far as God's will allows it. God alone has the prerogative and sovereign right to say, "I will do this or that" and fully expect that His will, will be done. Therefore, all our plans should be conditioned upon the will of God (James 4:15). Why? Because it keeps us from being too confident that everything would happen exactly the way we had planned. 

This kind of confidence mistakenly assumes to know the future. The future is known only to God, and thus we must not be overconfident about carrying out whatever plans we make. The point is that if we do not even have control over our own life - e.g. when it begins and ends - how can we plan as if we have full control over the future? But this does not mean that we should not plan at all. We must now look at the other aspect - human responsibility.

We are Responsible to Plan and to Pray

A fatalistic view of God does not go together with planning and praying. Both of these things are required of believers. The Lord expects us to invest our time, efforts and talents wisely. That requires planning. Some kind of planning is required if we are to walk circumspectly, redeeming the time (Ephesians 5:15,16). The Lord also wants us to pray (John 14:14) and He promises to act in answer to prayer (Psalm 91:14).

Although God is in control of all things and has determined all things from the beginning, the relationship of our wills with His will is not static but dynamic. When God determined the whole course of human history, He had already taken all our prayers and plans into consideration. Hence He has included whatever we plan or pray for, and that He approves of, and yet in such a way that our wills in praying or planning are freely exercised. 

One example from the Scriptures can be found in Daniel chapter 9. On his own initiative, Daniel prayed that God would cause the Jews in captivity to return and rebuild Jerusalem (vv.4-19). But as soon as Daniel started to pray, an answer was already given by God. God already knew exactly what Daniel was going to ask, and He answered immediately (vv.20-23). 

God already knows exactly what we are going to pray for even before we ask Him. David expressed it as follows: "For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O LORD, thou knowest it altogether" (Psalm 139:4). He has already heard our prayers long before we prayed them, and He has already answered them through what He has predestined from the time before the world was created!

God Wants Us to Have a Close Relationship with Him

Why does God then want us to pray at all, if He already knows what we will pray for? We may consider why a father would tell his child, "I know exactly what you need, and I will give it to you, but I will not give it to you until you realize that you need it and come to ask me for it." It is because the father wants the child to build up a personal relationship with Him, a relationship of trust, love and dependence. In the same way, the personal relationship we are to have with God is so important to Him, that He has made us dependent upon Him in our praying. Praying ensures that we will communicate with God. 

The same thing can be said of our responsibility to make plans and carry them out. God wants us to do all these things in dependence upon Him. Each time we exercise our responsibility to make plans and carry them out, we have the opportunity to depend upon the Lord for power, wisdom and strength to do it. Through this process, our relationship with God deepens. 

This then makes the difference between the fatalistic view of God's sovereignty and the dynamic, biblical view of God's sovereignty: The fatalistic view is impersonal. There is hardly any personal relationship involved in it. A fatalistic believer is passive all the time. He is not inclined to pray or plan. He never asks for anything, but simply accepts whatever comes to him from God. He takes no initiative to do things that will require him to depend upon the Lord, because to him, God's sovereign will automatically gets done, even when he does nothing. The result is that his relationship with God never develops. He does not experience the power and goodness of God, and so remains distant from Him.

On the other hand, the dynamic view of God's sovereignty is personal. A believer with this view is inclined to actively pray and plan to do things for the Lord. If things do not seem favourable, he prays that God will change them. Whatever God does not change, he willingly accepts. But whatever changes God makes in answer to prayer, makes a lasting impression on him and brings him closer to God. He takes the initiative to do things that require close dependence and trust in the Lord. He is rewarded when the Lord, in His providence, works all things out wonderfully well (Romans 8:28). As a result of this, his love for the Lord grows, and he testifies of his experience of God's goodness before others.

Dear Reader, you should not have a fatalistic view of life, whether without God (as many atheists do today) or with God. Your view of life should balance God's control of all things with your human responsibility. This is the only view that can bring you into a living relationship with the Living God, and that can develop your faith, trust and dependence upon Him. Are you enjoying such a relationship with God right now? Or have you been living by a fatalistic view of life?

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

October 15 & 22 - The Cost of Discipleship

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. Matthew 16:25