“THERE is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven”, says the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. The words are quite often read at a funeral service. In the 1960s, Pete Seeger sang his own version (although somehow he managed to twist it into a peace song, which wasn’t what the original was about).
Perhaps we could add a line – “a time to put up Christmas decorations, and a time to take them down”! Life is full of apparently contradictory activities. It may seem pointless, but in their time they have their place – weeping and laughing, mourning and dancing, and so on.
It may be comforting for us to realise that there are these criss-crossing currents in life, so that what was once unacceptable now seems to be the right thing to do. When I was young, I drove one way; now that I’m older, I drive differently. We store things up; then throw them out. I speak vehemently, then hold my tongue. Even hard things, like sadness and loss, can be seen to take their place in this view of life.
However, we may be missing the point. The Preacher wants to show that, without God, life really will be full of senseless contradictions. From our point of view, as mere mortals, the various currents seem to cancel each other out - and what’s the point of that? The tide comes in; the tide goes out. It hasn’t got us anywhere. It looks like a meaningless cycle. Sometimes, the pattern of our lives can seem like that.
Even more disturbing, the different phases of our lives come on us unbidden. They’re out of our control. The times and seasons are in God’s hands. He may know what he is doing, but he is far out of sight and his ways are beyond what we can grasp.
Ecclesiastes teaches us not to be proud, or think that we can understand all that goes on round about us, or in our own lives. We only have a limited viewpoint, and are too small to be able to see the whole picture.
On the other hand, his pessimism nudges us along and helps us to realise that the best course may be to leave our questions with God and trust in him. After all, it is the “fear of the Lord” (a phrase that Ecclesiastes likes to use) that is the beginning of wisdom, not thinking that we can understand it all ourselves.
Actually, it may be quite a relief to pass over our cares and troubles to God, knowing that he knows everything, and that we can trust him. We’ll go on searching, because that’s how we’re made. But we shouldn’t be surprised when the meaning of things escapes us.
Inchbrayock Parish Church and Montrose Melville South Church