Friday, April 3, 2009

Turn, Turn, Turning No More: An Eschatological Reflection on Ecclesiastes 3:1-11

In Christ Qoheleth's seasons have run out;
The church's patience bleeds its time without.

- - - - - - -

Even in our biblically illiterate society, everyone knows the line: "To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven." We've heard it at funerals and weddings; we know it best from the King James Version; we start humming along, "Turn Turn Turn," with The Byrds' musical adaptation of it. And not without reason. Hear again these powerful words of wisdom from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, 11:
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,
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 mind,
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. ...

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
I want to honor the fact that this passage contains within it deep power and meaning for people whose years, experiences, and wisdom trump my own in all respects. A professor this past week shared of the memories the passage has for him because he chose it to be read at his grandfather's funeral. That is the memory this passage conjures for him.

And we can see why! It does what any poem about such central matters should do, treating them with the intimate respect, depth, and ambiguity they deserve. It resonates because we find ourselves, our lives, our friends, our families, our joys and our pains in these words. In other words, we find life, true life, life as it is lived, in this poem. I want therefore to tread carefully in my treatment of it.

My treatment involves a hesitancy. The hesitancy stems from the way Christians normally read the passage, and the theological worldview that underpins it. The mindsets and reactions Christians have, of course, are varied, but they share a similar constant.

The constant is a kind of warm acceptance, or even justification or passivity, vis-a-vis the world the poem describes. That is, the world imaginatively created by Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 is a world constituted by death, violence, killing, mourning, separation, hatred, and war -- along with their (apparently) natural corollaries -- and a world made up of these things is simply taken for granted.

From the perspective of the wisdom tradition -- and especially the far ledge Qoheleth occupies in that line of thought in the Old Testament -- this makes perfect sense. Rather than beginning with God and looking down, wisdom begins with human experience and looks up -- or, even, keeps the gaze level, ever only looking around, and finding the God "above" there, in that level line of sight, present in the ongoing sustenance of creation and in the mundane outworking of human living. Thus the Book of Proverbs.

Qoheleth, the "Teacher" or "Head of the Assembly" in Ecclesiastes, takes an even sharper edge, rarely finding God or even meaning in life -- only vanity, toil, hardship, death. There is more to his analysis, of course, but those themes pervade.

So it makes sense why Qoheleth, belonging to a larger tradition, would describe the world in such terms. He is naming what everyone else already knows: life consists of war and peace, planting and uprooting, loving and hating. He takes a further step, however, to say that there is a "time" or "season" for each of these things, a kind of symmetry of good and evil, and that God "has made everything beautiful in its time." These lend to even greater comfort, to even deeper resonance, because we find meaning in the fact that the war our fathers fought, bled, and died in was imbued with a necessary beauty; that the drought (agricultural or economic) our parents endured served a purpose in God's plan; that the death of a grandparent belonged in the economy of God's sovereign design for the cosmos.

And to the extent that such hopes and consolations stem from a desire to find God absent from no area of life, or to see God's steadying hand in the midst of chaos, or to trust that this thing does not negate faith in the good creator God because no thing does -- this passage from Scripture matches its own beauty with an ability to speak truthfully to people about the experience of faith in lived life.

But, when its reading leads to what I mentioned above -- namely warm acceptance, justification, and/or passivity vis-a-vis the type of world the poem describes -- the passage shifts from potent, truthful poetry to unwitting contributor to theological error. The reason is as follows.

Christians do not believe there is a time for everything. We believe that in Christ the time has changed. There was once a time when there was a time for all things; but that time is over. Now, in the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, present time is no longer fallen time: for the church, present time is future time. In the death of Jesus God put to death all of the deathly corollaries of the good things of life God created for this world; and in the resurrection of Jesus God's good future, in which all those good things will be brought to redeemed fruition and restoration, has invaded this world even today -- so that the overpowering and overwhelming life that is the resurrected Jesus is the place, is the person, where the inbreaking kingdom of God has come in fact, in its fullness. And the people that gather around this person, this fullness of the life of God's shalom, who follow and worship and believe on his name -- that is, the church -- this people participate in the very same fullness and future in the power of the Holy Spirit, who is the sign and deposit and source of that coming future's consummation. The triune God who rescues the world in Jesus and promises a new future for that world has given to that world a people who offer in their life a sharing in the coming restoration of all things.


So for the church, the time has indeed changed irrevocably. As Hebrews 2:8-9 says, "Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we do see Jesus..." The people of God are those who have the eyes to see that, though the nations rage and kings set themselves against the Lord's anointed, the crucified and risen Jesus is in fact Lord of all the earth -- and it is the way of this Jesus, the way he lived his life and acted in the world and handled money and treated others and responded to violence and taught his followers, that the church now embodies in its life together. Jesus did not merely come to fulfill an arbitrary divine diktat, so that nothing changed except individuals' "standing" before God. With Jesus the entire cosmos altered; and the church is most unfaithful when its only witness or speech to the world involves the decidedly unchanged settledness of "the way things are," otherwise called "the real world" or "reality."

So to hear in Ecclesiastes 3 something other than precisely what Jesus came to change (and did) is a drastic mishearing for the mission of the church. God has not made death beautiful in its time: God stands against death. Death is the enemy. Killing is the enemy. Violence is the enemy. In Jesus God stood against these things once and for all and put them to death. Their reign is through. The principalities and the powers of death have been defeated: "And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Colossians 3:15). In Christ God has no more time for such things. He is done with them.

Of course, I am merely describing one side of the coin: In Christ death is dead, but we still await the final redemption when all will be made new. The Lord tarries and we keep patience for the parousia, but in the meantime, death and violence and famine and brokenness remain. So why "oppose" the view of this passage? Why not continue to affirm with it that God makes everything beautiful in its time?

Because when the church forgets its enemy, it gets comfortable in a world that it ought to know, better than anyone else, is passing away. When the people who have been freed from the fear of death begin to view death no longer as the defeated enemy but as a natural God-ordained stage of life, we lose our meaning for existence. Ecclesiastes 3 has the potential to make us think there is a time for homelessness and a time for homecoming, a time for poverty and a time for upward mobility, a time for disease and a time for health.

The gospel speaks a different word: The Holy One of Israel takes on homelessness and poverty and death for the sake of a world that will one day be rid of all such injustices. In doing so he stands against all homelessness, all poverty, all disease, all oppression, all injustice, all chaos, all death. He did not do so by acting as if they did not exist, and neither did he act as if they were quite alright as the way things were. He engaged them fully, took them upon himself, stepped into the life of those who were most suffering by their hand. So must we if we hope and claim to follow this one as Lord.

I conclude with two realizations of this truth in art. In reverse, the second is a piece by Daniel Erlander (thanks Jimmy McCarty!), who created all three images on this post and whose art you ought to go peruse immediately. The first is words by Derek Webb from his song "This Too Shall Be Made Right." Both men know the eschatological difference the church makes to the reading of this passage because they can see a world in which death in all its forms is finally at an end. And that makes a different for the church today.
Children cannot learn when children cannot eat
Stack them like lumber when children cannot sleep
Children dream of wishing wells
Whose waters quench all the fires of Hell
This too shall be made right

The earth and the sky and the sea are all holding their breath
Wars and abuses have nature groaning with death
We say we’re just trying to stay alive
But it looks so much more like a way to die
This too shall be made right

There’s a time for peace and there is a time for war
There's a time to forgive and a time to settle the score
A time for babies to lose their lives
A time for hunger and genocide
This too shall be made right

1 comment:

  1. This is POWERFUL!! I am teaching a class on Ecclesiastes 3 and shall certainly share your post AND give proper credit. God Bless

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