|3 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2 a time to be born, and a time to die;
This is the most well-known passage in Ecclesiastes. It was turned into a song by Pete Seeger, which was later recorded by the Byrds. (The lyrics from the song are taken directly from the King James version of this passage, which makes this the oldest number one Billboard song.) It is highly possible that you got suckered into doing this devotional series because you wanted to read the book that had this passage. You might not have realized that you had to work your way through one of the most cynical works of literature in the Bible.
This is one of the most profound pieces of literature in the world. Its simplicity is only exceeded by its depth.
Rabbi Rami Shapiro wrote, “There is no thing without its opposite, and to live clinging to the one without in time welcoming the other is a fool.”
This sounds like a nice sentiment, the kind you might write a song about, if you were a songwriter. Some of it is obvious. Anyone who has ever had a garden knows that there is a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted. Nothing grows from last year’s tomato plants. We know there is a time to speak, and a time to keep quiet (and most of wish more people knew about the latter).
But we prefer to have a time of laughing without the requisite time for weeping. We prefer dancing over mourning. We prefer peace over war. And we certainly prefer birth over death.
When I worked as a chaplain in the hospital, I was called to attend a death at least once a week, often more. But I rarely was there after a birth. That was a happy occasion, and no one felt the need to call the chaplain. They could handle that on their own. But for a death, they needed all the help they could get. You can say that everything has a season, but we do all we can to avoid the season of death, the season of mourning, the season when we refrain from embracing, the season when we scatter stones, the season of war and of hate.
As we should. We are not called to embrace hate, or war, or death in this passage. But we are just told these are inevitabilities. We are not told that we are to give ourselves over to tearing apart, to losing things dear to us, or to scattering stones. But we are warned that such a time will come. We are not told that we must “go gentle into that good night” of death, and I believe it is acceptable to “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” But we should know that our raging may not change the inevitable.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”
Thoughts and Questions
- Qohelet is writing poetry here, not philosophy as he is the rest of the book. This passage certainly works as a poem, but he leaves a lot out. How can we know which is the time for embracing, for example, and which is the time to refrain from embracing? How do we know when it is time to love and when it is time to hate? What guides you through these decisions?
- If you have heard the song, “Turn, Turn, Turn,” based on this text, you know it has a hopeful note to it, especially in the words Pete Seeger added at the end—“A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.” As you read it, in the context of what you have read so far in Ecclesiastes, does it still strike you as a hopeful song? Why or why not?
- Are there any other events you might add to this list? For example, a time to eat, and a time to go hungry; A time to be entertained and a time to work. Write three of your own.