Once upon a time, teaching religion to fourth graders, I’d given them this passage to read from Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season, / and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; / a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what 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 seek, and a time to lose; / a time to keep, and a time to cast away; / a time to tear, 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 for war, and a time for peace.”

“What does it mean?” I asked the kids. And my son Gabriel raised his hand and said, “Oh good! It means I’m finally going to have time for everything?” 
Ecclesiastes today would not win a popularity contest for What’s your favorite biblical book? (In the Middle Ages, more commentaries were written about Ecclesiastes than any other book of the Bible.) Our capacity for it suffers from too many dumb readings for too long. That’s a shame because few books in the Bible are so well-positioned to speak to our age than this one. 

The common contemporary take on Ecclesiastes says it was meant to impress us with what we would call fatalism; that fate has it all worked out such that no matter what you do it doesn’t matter, there’s going to be an undoing. This is not just fatalism, it’s the worst kind of fatalism. Even as you build you know there’s a time to tear down. Even as you mend you know there’s a time to rip apart. Even as you come to something resembling peace you know that fast on its heels there’s a time for war to undo it all. “Whatever is, that’s been before,” as the fifteenth verse says. We’re in this tragic self-defeating cycle of ebb and flow, an ineluctable force that thwarts our every effort.

But this reading handles the text with gloves on; this passage has nothing to do with faith per se; instead, it is an arrestingly beautiful poem about the timeliness and rhythm of all human endeavor that is the basis on which God judges it. This is what accounts for the selection of the activities that are mentioned. It isn’t just faith that is being discussed here; the text could have mentioned things like storms and good weather, things that are outside human control. Instead, every item in this list of fourteen pairs concerns activities over which humans exercise some control (bracketing, for the moment, the first pair more about which I will write at another time).

All the other pairs are subject to human influence or control, and the key to understanding the passage comes at the end where we read, “I said in my heart, God will bring into judgment the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every activity, a time for every deed.” The Most High judges us according to whether our lives conform to the proper time for all of these various activities. A good life is like music; it’s not about playing the right notes, it’s about playing the right notes at the right time. 

Any idiot can tell you that child abuse is wrong and protecting children is right. Where wisdom comes into play is in determining among good things what is the good thing at this moment. You see this all over Ecclesiastes and Proverbs.

Ecclesiastes 8. 5, “The wise heart will know the proper time and the proper procedure; for there is a proper time and procedure for every matter.” Proverbs 27. 14 says, “If a man loudly blesses his neighbor before cock crow, it will be taken as a curse.” Proverbs 15. 23, “A man finds joy in giving an apt reply, and how good is a timely word?”

More anon,
Phillip Ellsworth