I love Ecclesiastes 3. It makes me think of Saturday mornings, as a kid, listening to the oldies station with my dad. I didn’t know at the time the song, “Turn, Turn, Turn” was from the Bible. At some point in my teen years, I stumbled on it in Ecclesiastes and realized the words were’t written by The Byrds. And it stayed a favorite of mine -first as a pretty poem and now as a promise, a reminder that things in life really are a season. For good or bad, this season will pass.
I encourage you to read it aloud. It’s such a good one:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born 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 scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
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.
Usually, at Christmas, my husband gives me gifts that center around a common theme. (He’s creative and thoughtful like that). This year, he themed them after Ecclesiastes 3. He knows me so well. A few days before Christmas, he had COVID, but was insisting on going out to pick up one of my gifts. I knew it was from a friend of ours who has a side business making spirit wear. I thought, “Surely, I can wait a few days to get a new lacrosse T-shirt.” I told him that too. “It’s okay. Please don’t worry about it.” What I didn’t know is he had a sweatshirt made with the logo of the publisher for my book. This was crucial to the theme -a time to be born. I was to be an author for the first time and he wanted to commemorate that. (Yes, he took great precaution to not infect anyone.) I also got a new fountain pen since I’d been looking for my old faithful for months. It fit with “I time to search and a time to give up.” I found my pen a few weeks later, but I’m happy to have a spare. A time to plant? Wildflower seeds. I can’t wait to see those grow. A time to die? Let’s just say he changed it to a time to dye -a box of Clairol 50 which is my color. As if this scripture wasn’t already special to me, Ryan gave me more of a reason to love it.
It’s funny because, though this is the the most famous part of Ecclesiastes, this book is packed with wisdom. It is a wisdom book, so that shouldn’t be a surprise. In many ways, it feels like it was written for us, right now instead of 25 BC.
So, what are some other important themes from this ancient book?
1. It’s all a Vapor
Hevel: a vapor or smoke. The NIV version calls it "meaningless". The word Hevel appears 38 times in this book. So much in life is like smoke. It appears to be solid, but when you try to grab onto it, there’s nothing there. I think of things in my life I’ve grabbed, assuming they were solid but they disappeared before my eyes. Things I thought would sustain me, would satisfy me, but they weren’t real. And soon, I felt myself yearning again for something else. It’s a vapor. It doesn’t stay.
Look at verse 2:11. Can you think of a message more timely than this?
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.
Whether it’s money or fame or just things in my home, it’s like chasing after the wind. It makes me tired, but doesn’t add any real value in my life.
2. Nothing New
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Something deep inside me wants to fight against that notion. I imagine someone transplanted from another time and I think of how confused they would be with all our gadgets and technologies. But that’s not what the author means here. Our human nature, our experience -it’s not new. As I’m writing this at my local library, story time for toddlers is about to start. I can hear little ones crying and tired moms trying to corral them into the meeting room. I’m a few years removed from that stage and the older couple browsing periodicals near me are far more removed from it, but there’s nothing new. We were there and now we’re not. The cries of the kids and the voices of the moms are just like thousands of generations before us. There is nothing new under the sun.
This is a real struggle for us writers. I often find myself thinking, “What can I say that hasn’t been said millions of times already?” It can feel...meaningless. But this incredible book doesn’t leave us in the meaningless. It’s not hopeless because our God isn't hopeless.
3. God’s works aren’t meaningless
Sure, our toil and our striving can be meaningless. We don’t take our manicured lawns or our granite countertops to the grave with us, but God’s work isn’t like that. Look at Ecclesiastes 3:14:
I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.
Everything he does will endure forever. Just when I start to feel like my life is meaningless, I know I’m simply putting my meaning and my purpose in things that don’t have anything to do with God. I’m building my kingdom for my purpose and that will leave me in the same place. Chasing the wind. Grasping a vapor. We weren’t created to build our kingdom. We were created to worship the one whose kingdom is eternal. It’s no wonder we don’t feel fulfilled when we’re not doing what we’re created to do.
4. Don't be Alone
Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.
Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
At our wedding, our best man wrote a song that he sang with my sister (my maid of honor). In it, he referenced this verse. In fact, Ryan’s wedding ring had the phrase “three strand cord” engraved inside. We loved the idea that if our lives were intertwined with God, we would not be easily broken.
Over the years, when we’ve had conflict it’s because we’ve lost sight of that cord. We’ve put ourselves first instead of the other one. We’ve left God out of our decisions and our desires. But our God has been faithful to us to get back on track so we can help each other stand.
5. Fear God and Keep His Commands
There’s a place in this book where it gets kind of confusing. When you're reading it, you suddenly have more questions than answers. The author says to enjoy the simple things in life but he also says those things are meaningless. He says God will move us to greater wisdom, but he also says wisdom in itself is meaningless. It’s as if he can see the confused face of the reader when he ties it all up with this simple conclusion:
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
Life is out of our control. There are parts of it that will never make sense, and we have a tendency to chase after things that don’t matter. But God will bring justice to the world and everything is in his control. We are to fear him and keep his commands. In other words, give him the respect, honor, and worship he deserves and then do what he says.
I love this little book of wisdom. If you feel the urge to listen to that old song by The Byrds, I hope you will. Listen to it and know that people have been inspired by this little book of wisdom for thousands of years. When you think of this book, I hope you’ll remember these two commands: fear God and keep his commands. That’s what life is all about and it’s the secret to a life that is truly meaningful.