The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:The Works of the Lord
Coheleth saw that, notwithstanding the confusion which so broadly marked all human life, there was a partially-discovered method underlying everything. Things that seemed to come by chance really came by arrangement, and all the topsyturvy was only on the outside:—
"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven" (Ecclesiastes 3:1).
It is very marvellous, too, how little control man has over the coming and going of things, though he fusses and fumes as if the law were in his fingers and authority in his nod. This is God's method of keeping everything in his own hand, and yet allowing man the gratification of thinking that he has something to do with the boundaries and order of society. How to control man without submitting him to utter humiliation was God's problem, and he works it out every day. Man struts and shouts as if he were master, yet he is but a scullion in God's household, and there is more iron than glass in the window which lights his little cell. From the second to the eighth verse we have God's time-bill; indicating times of change, of direction, of progress,—and no man can touch the clock on whose lofty dial these times are marked. We have our little watches which we wind up and set as if we were keeping the time, forgetting in our petty self-complacency that God is timekeeper, and that his sun tells how the hour moves.
There is a time to dance as surely as there is a time to die. It is not a dial of cloud on which the hands move; it is now and again bright like the very sun. Every man dances—must dance; every man cries in bitterness of soul—must cry, for his sorrow is very great. Is it right to dance? You may as well ask, Is it right to breathe? It is not a question of right or wrong, it is a question of necessity. Whether you will turn dancing into an art or not, please yourself, but you must dance when joy blows her trumpet and sunshine warms the blood. There is a time to cast away stones,—to uproot, abolish, tear down, and destroy; and there is a time to construct, to build, and to make strong. The great thing is to know the time, and to say the right word at the right moment. There is a time to dance, but he who would dance in the house of mourning is a foolish man and one not to be endured. There is a time to mourn, but he who would mourn at a wedding would be as one that shut out the sun and shortened the road to the grave. We are not to mix the seasons. We are not to pluck sour fruit for our eating. If possible, we are to meet the conditions that are around us. "Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep." If we are not in wedding mood, then turn aside from the wedding banquet, lest a cloud fall on the bride's gladness; if we are lifted up with great joy, then escape from the path of the mourner, lest we grieve him with unseasonable mirth. "To every thing there is a season," and he is the wise man who puts away his sickle in seedtime, nor makes the wedding-bells clash when the heart is made poor by death. The turning of one season into another is often the direct work of God: "Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness."
We are to understand, then, that there is a spirit of Order in creation, and that God wishes our life to be rhythmic and musical, not tumultuous and self-disappointing: a place for everything and everything in its place; a time for everything and everything done in its time. This is not mere machinery, it is not stiffness or pedantry; it is the very perfection of ease and enjoyment: it entails the least possible waste, it divides all burdens equally, it makes the wheels of life go steadily and correctly. We have lost the spirit of Order. The human race has lost its marching step, and we now go each at his own pace, wildly, confusedly, blindly. Our march is no longer a piece of music: it is an ungainly waddle; it is a jerk and rush, as if the spirit of panic had displaced the spirit of peace.
Punctuality is morality. Punctuality is not a mere excellence of habit; it is an honest and true disposition. To be unpunctual is to take liberties with other people's rights; it is to be selfish under pretence of being only eccentric. Again and again let us say, There is a law of time, there is a philosophy of order, there is a science of procession. All this goes down much further than it seems to go. Our habits are no longer timely and seasonable, because our hearts are no longer right with God. We cannot be right with one another until we are right with our Maker. Morality is the practical side of religion. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart... and thy neighbour as thyself." When we take our time from the Sun of Righteousness, our hands will point men to the right time of day. We must be right fundamentally before we can be right incidentally.
In this procession and reaction of times and seasons, Coheleth saw that he was the truly wise man who enjoyed the day that was passing over him:—
"Every man should... enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God" (Ecclesiastes 3:13).
Try to find the sweetness that is in your food. Do not eat as mere animals, but eat and drink sacramentally. "It is the gift of God." Do not put off your enjoyments, but realise them now. You are going to be a happy man in some far off future; why not be happy at this very moment? Instead of merely going to heaven as a distant and unknown land, begin your heavenly enjoyment and service now. Do not waste the sunshine. It was meant to make glad, therefore be glad, and quote the sunlight as authority and justification. But there is trouble in your heart, you say, and you cannot be glad. Such a condition of life must always be broadly and sympathetically recognised. Give that trouble its right name, and you will find that its name is Sin. You know the mighty power of sin over human life: it frightens away the birds of paradise; it scares the angels of God; it calls together the wandering clouds, and forms them into one intense and infinitely awful storm; it drops poison into the choicest wine; it starts up like a spirit in the darkness of the bad man's chamber, and shakes that darkness as if it were a curtain, and fills the air with a ghostly noise. Sin is a shadow that kills the flowers; it is a spectral hand on the gilded and pictured wall; it is a tug in the crowd; it is a mocking laugh in the churchyard; it is a touch of fire;—it is hell! No wonder, then, that men cannot enjoy the day as it passes over them, and that though they rise to conquer in the morning, they fall back at night with arrows quivering and rankling in their hearts. All order, all rhythm, all proportion, must go down before the destructive influence of sin. This is true in the individual character, and true in all social and national relations. There can be no peace on the surface until there is rest at the heart. Come, thou Saviour of the world, and bruise the head of the cruel serpent! Thou only canst work this great miracle of reconciliation, and the recall and re-establishment of order. All things are out of course: the foundations are shaken, the cornerstones are displaced, and utterest confusion reigns. Come, thou Spirit of peace, walk over the troubled sea of our storm-tossed ship, and bring to us the joy and the hope of a great calm!
Coheleth well says that there is a secret in the works of God:—
"No man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end" (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
No man can find out the secret of things. God allows man wide liberties and privileges, but he keeps back one key which never passes into mortal hands. "The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein." "Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? deeper than hell; what canst thou know? The measure thereof is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea." You work your way down to the molecule, but what is it? Who made it? You dissect and analyse and test by steel and fire, but what is that which escapes you at the last? It hovers above you, it glances at you, it thrills you; what is it? Lo! no man can catch that subtle thing and make it give up its secret. We have read many pages, yet we cannot finish the book. There is one chapter wanting, perhaps only a paragraph, perhaps only a word; but it is wanting! So again and again we come upon the inquiry just quoted—"Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?" Rightly understood, it is this missing Secret which keeps the world moving. We think we can get at it if we travel faster, so we mount the quickest runner and fly after the Secret; and lo! when we come to the journey's end, we find we have been set down nowhere, and there is no way back again! We think we might telegraph for it, and we telegraph, but no one answers us from the other end, except a man who knows nothing and can tell nothing! We may get it, though, if we bore a tunnel under the sea; and behold, when we get a mile on the road we are choked and stifled, and the depth says, It is not in me. Still that Secret keeps the world in perpetual movement. We should sink into somnolence if it were not for a Voice in the wind that says, Try again, you may find me next time. Find the echo! Find the starting-point of the wind! When you have found these you will be as far from God as ever. And yet he is always looking on, always feeding us, always holding us up in his arms. "In him we live and move and have our being."
Of God, it may be said—"He hath made every thing beautiful in his time" (Ecclesiastes 3:11);
"And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment, that wickedness was there; and the place of righteousness, that iniquity was there. I said in mine heart, God shall judge the righteous and the wicked: for there is a time there for every purpose and for every work" (Ecclesiastes 3:16-17).
Among all the sights that Coheleth saw there was none so discouraging and saddening as this,—wickedness in the place of judgment! When the lips of the judge are sealed by flattery, and the hand of the executioner is stayed by a bribe, what is the security of life? The testimony of Coheleth goes directly to an error which appears to have taken hold of our own times; we seem to think that ignorance is the parent of all crime, and that to live in a poor neighbourhood is to have poor morals. The poor and the untaught have to bear many an unreasonable and unjust reflection. It would not be difficult to show that the crimes of the ignorant are not to be mentioned with the crimes of the instructed, for turpitude and for range of mischievous influence. Look at the law reports of any civilised country: who are the criminals? The men who cannot read and write may have committed many petty misdemeanours, but it will be found that it is the educated and the gifted who have done most to bring dishonour upon civilisation, and to threaten society with insecurity and ultimate ruin. Are they the crimes of the poor and the ignorant that stain the pages of history? How are political intrigues conducted? Who arranges all the network of statecraft? How are wars plotted, and how is oppression carried out? By the poor, the unlettered, the pickpocket? Such an inquiry needs no reply in words. We know that perverted education, and misdirected shrewdness, and calculating self-regard can do more in the way of troubling and degrading nations than can be done by poverty, illiterateness, and the desperation of weakness. Let us therefore understand that sinfulness is not peculiar to any class. It is not a class question at all; it is human nature that has fallen, and not some particular men representing an exclusive class.
In the seventeenth verse Coheleth shows a manifestation of what may be called natural religion. His better instincts now come to his aid, and he says in his heart,
"God shall judge the righteous and the wicked." (Ecclesiastes 3:17)
Even the man who does not formally and professedly believe in God feels in his heart of hearts that there must be a last appeal to him. When man is true to his instincts and intuitions he sends out a cry to the living God in the day of sore trouble and utter helplessness. Human nature does not disclose itself wholly and absolutely under ordinary circumstances. The man who will quietly ignore the existence of God will call out for him when trouble darkens the window, and when the rock melts into a bog under his uncertain feet We all are aware of circumstances which almost necessitate the existence and beneficent rule of God. When we see the strong oppressing the weak, and the rich tormenting the poor, and the bad man throwing down all signs of virtue, we feel within us a testimony which we cannot repress to the existence of an Authority which must ultimately put down all such crime. Under such circumstances the heart tells its own tale. This is one good that comes out of the very wickedness of human nature. In a state of average respectability and decency, the very idea of God might drop out of human thinking. With excellent health, plentiful income, happy families, who would care for God? It is when life reaches the tragic point that men cry out for the living Father. The same is true on the better side of our nature. In our highest moments we think of God. When the soul is inflamed with pure love, and life is lifted far beyond the seductions and mockeries of earth, God is our supreme joy, and he is our infinite satisfaction. It is the middle or commonplace line of life that is full of danger. It is in the lull that our sails cling to the mast. We need to be shaken, roused, scourged! Herein it is true to say of man, "Cry aloud, for he has a God!" In the Cross of Christ all this is made to appear in its right light. There we find the throne of judgment, and every man standing before it, giving an account of himself unto God. What is begun in the Old Testament is completed in the New. "We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad."
"I said in mine heart concerning the estate of the sons of men, that God might manifest them, and that they might see that they themselves are beasts. For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?" (Ecclesiastes 3:18-21).
The psalmist says. "I was as a beast before thee." Our life is so short and our vision so dim and contracted that we are comparatively as little able to measure the scope of God's government as are the beasts which perish. The circle is so vast that any line we can lay upon it appears to be straight. Is it not even so with the earth itself? Who can see where the line curves? You think it curves at yonder point; go to it, and you will find it stretches away as direct and unbent as before. We mistake the part for the whole. We sit in our little village, and think it is the whole universe. We miss the philosophy of proportion and relationship. Given a circle of half an inch in diameter, and the glow-worm is a great sun; a circle of a foot in diameter, and the candle is a blazing planet; a circle of fifty feet radius, and the candle is barely visible. It is so with the two periods which we know as Here and Hereafter—with time and eternity. When we stand at the foot of the mountain the mighty hill rises right away to the clouds—huge, solemn, over-towering; at a distance of half a mile that same mountain is robbed of its magnificence; or, viewed from the summit of another hill, it becomes but a gentle slope. One day we shall see it so with earth itself: what is now great to us will become little, and what is now distant and speculative will become the eternal and satisfying reality. Why are we not convinced by what is patent to our own observation? Give a religious application to these things that are earthly, and you will see life in its proper measure and relationship. Viewed within narrow limits there seems to be no difference between the death of a man and the death of a beast: they breathe the same air, they are warmed by the same sun, they are buried in the same earth. Yet there is something in us, apart from revelation, which tells us that the spirit of man goeth upward. You know that the child does not die as the dog. Perhaps you cannot explain why; but who can explain the deepest things and the highest? Your own consciousness, especially in its highest moods, is a perpetual mystery. We know many things for which there are no words; even the words we use have meanings much beyond the letter. We know otherwise than intellectually that there is something in us that death cannot quench—
"Else whence this pleasing hope, This fond desire, this lingering after immortality?"
A certain part of the way we undoubtedly go side by side with the beast: we are flesh and blood, we eat and drink, we live on the same earth; yet there is a point of departure at which man leaves the beast at an infinite distance—even the poorest and commonest men; man thinks, plans, advances, reads, writes, speculates; and as here and now there is so great and manifest a distance, it is simply impossible that beast and man can be one at death, except in the mere act of physically expiring. There is some difference between an exhausted candle and a setting sun; there is some difference between the rotting wood and the slumbering root. So there is some difference between the breath that is in the nostrils and the inspiration that moves and elevates the soul.
"Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?" (Ecclesiastes 3:22).
Thus Coheleth comes back to self-enjoyment. Eat the grapes as you grow them; put nothing into the earth that you cannot eat in your own lifetime. Oh, foolish wisdom! Give to the poor if you would be rich; leave something for the gleaners if you would have plenty for yourself. "He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord." Said one Christian philanthropist who took the right measure of things, "I have nothing but that which I have given away." The Book of Ecclesiastes is best interpreted by the teaching of Jesus Christ. Immediately after reading this book read the Sermon on the Mount, and all its narrow philosophy and contracted outlook will be counteracted as to their vicious influence. We feel in listening to Coheleth that we are listening to a man who has seen one world only, and who is measuring all things by its standards and customs. He is only good so far as he goes. We have to take him with innumerable qualifications and drawbacks. When we peruse the Sermon on the Mount from end to end, and see what Jesus Christ's conception of man really is, and what is the relation in which he sets man to God and God to man—how he holds time in contempt, as a thing that is self-contained, and regards it as of value only as it bears upon the unseen and the eternal, we instinctively and gratefully exclaim, "A greater than Solomon is here!"