Timing is Everything (Ecclesiastes 3)
By David Feddes
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. Ecclesiastes 3:11
Timing is everything. There’s a time to be happy and a time to be grumpy—and in my opinion morning is definitely a time to be grumpy. Some people leap out of bed before sunrise, smiling and singing and saying happy hellos to everyone they meet. I’m not a morning person, so these early-morning cheerleaders just make me grumpier than I already am. I agree with the Bible verse that says, “If a man loudly blesses his neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse” (Proverbs 27:14). Bad timing can make a blessing feel like a curse.
Timing is everything, and everything has its time. Perhaps the best-known passage about timing in all of world literature is in the Bible at the beginning of Ecclesiastes 3.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: 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 mend, 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. (3:1-8)
Timing is everything. Thanks to recent discoveries in medical technology, a woman in her sixties now has a chance to give birth to a child. It can be done, but should it be done? Is it fair to the child whose parents are likely to die before the child reaches adulthood? There’s a time to be born and a time to die. When people are only a decade away from the average time to die, should they deliberately go against natural timing, use various medical treatments, and make it a time for a child to be born to someone of retirement age?
Timing is everything in economics. A farmer needs to know when it’s time to plant and when it’s time to harvest. An investor needs to know when it’s time to buy and when it’s time to sell. An employee needs to know when it’s time to ask for a raise and when it’s not. Timing often makes the difference between failure and success.
Timing is everything in emotions. There’s a time to weep and a time to laugh. If there’s a happy celebration going on, it’s no time to be serious or somber. If somebody has just been struck by tragedy, it’s no time to be jolly or tell jokes. The Bible says, “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day … is one who sings songs to a heavy heart” (Proverbs 25:20).
Timing is everything in relationships. If you’re convinced it’s “a time to embrace,” but the other person thinks it’s “a time to refrain from embracing,” it can be mighty awkward. If you think it’s a time to speak and the other person thinks it’s a time to be silent, there could be trouble. Relationships require a proper sense of timing.
Timing is everything in daily decision-making. When you’re in the middle of a project, you may have to decide whether it’s time to build on previous progress or time to tear it down and start over. When you’ve lost something, you have to know when to keep searching and when to give up and hope it turns up later. When you’re getting ready for a garage sale, you have to decide whether it’s time to keep various items or time to throw away. From big decisions to small details, timing matters.
Timing is everything in the affairs of nations. British prime minister Neville Chamberlain tried to appease Adolph Hitler. Chamberlain’s goal, he said, was “peace in our time.” But it was not a time for peace; it was a time for war. Chamberlain couldn’t see that, but Winston Churchill could. More often, though, leaders have the opposite problem: They are quick to think it’s time for war, when it’s time to give peace a chance.
Looking Beyond Time
These are just a few examples of how the right move depends on timing. But how can you develop a good sense of timing? Well, strange as it may sound, the best way to understand time and to use it well is to look beyond time. If you simply go from one time to the next and bounce from one event to another, you never see the big picture. Timing is everything, and everything is a matter of timing—but only in a certain sense. If time is all you look at, you never see what time is all about. But if you look beyond time to eternity, you find that all the various times are in the hands of the eternal God and unfold according to his plan. Even when you can’t understand it all, God enables you to savor the beauty of everything in its proper time and to use time to prepare for eternity.
Ecclesiastes 3 begins by saying, “There is a time for everything,” and lists a number of things that are part of life at one time or another. The author then repeats a question he has already asked a number of times: “What does the worker gain from his toil?” (3:9, see 1:3, 2:22) What’s the point of it all?
When the author first asked that question in chapter 1, he answered that everything was empty and meaningless. At that point he was speaking from an “under the sun” perspective, an outlook focused on the here-and-now that ignored God almost entirely. In chapter 2, he told how he tried almost everything imaginable to satisfy his longings and still came up empty, and he began to see why. He saw that it’s impossible to find satisfaction without God. It comes only as God’s gift. By the time he reaches chapter 3, the writer of Ecclesiastes still has hard questions, but he’s gained some insight, and he’s beginning to develop some answers.
This time, when he repeats his question, “What’s the use of it all?” he’s not quite so gloomy. He doesn’t just complain about meaningless drudgery and emptiness. Instead he says,
I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him. Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account. (3:10-15)
These words from verses 10-15 of Ecclesiastes 3 give us a key that unlocks the door to the mystery and meaning of time and eternity. The basic assumption is that God is in charge, and this passage reveals four implications of that.
Beautiful In Its Time
First, God’s timing is beautiful and meaningful. From our perspective life can seem like a burden, and time can seem like a jumble of unconnected events. But God has a plan in which he appoints a time for everything, and his plan brings a kind of beauty to each event and time. “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” God arranges all the various times into a wholeness that reveals the beauty of the Lord and brings blessing to his people. As the New Testament puts it, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
When we think about beautiful timing, then, it’s not just a matter of us knowing what we should do at a given time. It’s also a matter of realizing that there are all sorts of times and events that come into our lives regardless of any choices we make. It’s God’s choice—not just our choice—that shapes the times of our lives. God lays on us the burden of a life we might not have chosen for ourselves. Should we fight that burden and be frustrated by it? Or should we trust the God who makes everything beautiful in its time? As long as we think we have the right to run our own lives, we’ll find God’s control burdensome. But once we surrender to God and trust his providence and plan, we begin to sense his beautiful timing.
Eternity in Our Hearts
The second and perhaps central truth in this passage is that God has set eternity in our hearts. No matter how much we focus on material things, we sense a need for something more, something greater than anything we see or touch. We have time on our hands but eternity in our hearts.
God has made everything beautiful in its time, but he never designed us to be satisfied with time. Material things, things that come and go with time, are not enough to satisfy our deepest longing. These things are beautiful gifts of God, but they were never meant satisfy us. Time is an appetizer. It’s not the main meal, and it was never meant to be. Time is meant to stimulate our appetite for eternity.
In each of our hearts there is a God-shaped, eternity-sized emptiness, an emptiness that only the fullness of God can fill. And where is the fullness of God? In Jesus Christ. “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form,” says the Bible, “and you have been given fullness in Christ” (Colossians 2:9-10). When Ecclesiastes 3:11 speaks about eternity in the heart, it adds that we “cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” But what we can’t fathom on our own, God shows us in Jesus. The New Testament says that the goal of believers is to “have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3). God’s eternal fullness and wisdom in Christ is his answer to the eternity-sized longing of our minds and hearts.
And that brings us to a third truth: Only when we look to eternity can we begin to enjoy, really enjoy, the beauty of the various times in our lives right now. If we keep trying to find our deepest satisfaction in things that aren’t eternal, we’ll be terribly frustrated. But if we seek first the kingdom of God, we won’t expect earthly things to do for us what God never intended them to do, and we’ll be able to enjoy life right for what it is: a good gift of God—not his ultimate gift, but a good gift nonetheless. As Ecclesiastes puts it, “I know that there is nothing better than to be happy and do good while [we] live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God.” It’s ironic, but the less you depend on the here and now to meet your deepest hungers, the more you’re able to enjoy the here and now.
If you go to a banquet hoping for a big meal and someone offers you just a few little treats when you arrive, how do you react? You might be so upset about the shortage of food that you’re hardly able to enjoy even the tasty tidbits that are there. But if you know that those tidbits are just appetizers that come before the main meal, your experience changes. You can relish each morsel without being upset that it hasn’t filled you up. You know that the full feast is still coming.
In the same way, once you realize that this life isn’t all there is, that the main feast is not in time but in eternity, you can relish the various times and treats of life without being frustrated at your growing hunger. You know why the hunger is there: God put eternity in your heart. If you belong to Jesus, you know that he is going to satisfy that hunger at the eternal feast in the kingdom of God. In the meantime, you can enjoy various times and experiences in life as appetizers from God, even as your hunger for eternity keeps growing.
The Final Say
A fourth insight of this passage is that God is in charge and has the final say on everything. Nothing can change God’s purpose or plan. Nothing can undo what God does. As Ecclesiastes puts it, “I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.” Instead of resisting God’s timing, rest in it. Instead of resenting God’s rule of all things, revere him. Instead of rebelling against the Lord, rejoice that your times are in his hands (Psalm 31:15).
Because God is in charge, he is the one who makes the final evaluation of everything. It may seem that there’s nothing new under the sun, that history doesn’t really get anywhere, that it just keeps repeating itself without much meaning, and that each generation has to face the same basic issues as any other generation. If we’re hoping to find the purpose of history in some grand story of progress or discovery, we’re looking in the wrong place. History is just a stage. The real drama is the individual people God has placed on that stage and how they relate to God. The stage of history doesn’t really change all that much, but the actions of each individual matter very much, and God will examine and give a final ruling on everything. In the words of verse 15, “Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account.” The true meaning of history is in what God makes of it in light of the eternal.
What About Injustice?
Having provided a glimpse of these profound insights, the writer uses the rest of Ecclesiastes 3 to address a couple of harsh realities that seem to go against what he’s just said. That’s one of the great things about the book of Ecclesiastes: it never dodges hard questions or offers easy answers.
The first problem is this: If it’s really true that God is in charge and all times are part of his plan, then how can there be so much injustice in the world? Verse 16 says, “And I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgment—wickedness was there, in the place of justice—wickedness was there.” How can we believe in God’s beautiful timing and his perfect plan when there is so much that is obviously rotten?
Here is the Teacher’s reply: “I thought in my heart, ‘God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time for every deed” (Ecclesiastes 3:17). You see, there’s not just a time for every deed to be done. There’s also a time for every deed to be judged.
Some people are so upset by injustice that they take it as proof that God doesn’t exist. But it’s really proof that God does exist. How can something be unjust, except by contrast to a supreme standard of justice? If God doesn’t exist and there is no supreme standard, then nothing is unjust or wicked, even if we happen not to like it. But since we know that some things really are wrong, there must be some supreme standard of right, and so there must be a God who sets that standard and holds us to it.
But what about people who seem to get away with injustice? Doesn’t that prove either that God is unjust or that he is unable to carry out his will? No, it only proves that ultimate justice is not in our hands but in God’s hands, and that final justice will be served in God’s good time, not our time. God allows wickedness to happen, true enough, but he has also appointed a time for every deed to be judged. Timing is everything. So, then, the sense that some things are unjust and ought to be judged, far from disproving God, actually points to the fact that a just Judge does exist and that all events are leading up to his final judgment at his appointed time.
Dying Like Animals?
A second objection to all this talk of eternity and God’s purpose and his judgments is the fact that we all end up dying like animals. The last part of Ecclesiastes 3 says,
I also thought, “As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him? (3:18-22)
Some people think that since we die like the animals, it would be nice if we could live like animals and relax and follow our urges without any thoughts of morality or eternity. The poet Walt Whitman wrote: “I think that I could turn and live with animals/ they are so placid and self-contain’d/ I stand and look at them long/ and long/ They do not sweat or whine about their condition/ They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins/ They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God.”
Animals don’t worry about right and wrong, and they don’t think ahead to their own death. They just live and die and turn to dust. People live and die and turn to dust too, but somehow people are different. Even if we don’t understand why injustice is so common, even if we’re not sure what happens to the spirit after we die, the very fact that we think about such things shows that we are utterly different from animals.
The Lord shows us that we’re like the animals in some ways, but unlike the animals, we have eternity in our hearts. Eternity gives us a conscience, a sense of God’s eternal standard of right and wrong—so we can’t rest content living like animals. Eternity also gives us a longing for immortality, a sense that death should not be the end—and so we can’t get used to the idea of simply dying like animals. Rather than waste time wishing we could be content with an animal existence, why not face the fact that we have eternity in our heart and that God put it there?
The Teacher of Ecclesiastes, writing centuries before Christ, saw hints of God’s beautiful timing and of eternity. And what were only hints and hopes at the time of Ecclesiastes became reality in Jesus. God’s timing came together with eternity. As the Bible puts it, “when the time had fully come, God sent his Son” (Galatians 4:4). At Jesus’ birth eternity entered time: God became a man. At Jesus’ resurrection, time entered eternity: man became immortal with the life of God. In the words of Scripture, “Christ Jesus … has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10).
Now back to where we started: timing is everything. There is “a time to be born and a time to die.” So, too, there is a time to be born again, and a time to die forever in hell. There is a time to be saved, and a time to be judged. “God has set a day,” says the Bible, “when he will judge the world by the man he has appointed” (Acts 17:31)—Jesus Christ. There is a time to repent, and a time when the opportunity to repent is gone. There is a time to turn to Jesus in faith, and that time is now. God’s Word says, “now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2). Now is the time to get ready for eternity. Later may be too late. Timing is everything.
Eternal Father, thank you for each precious moment of time you give us. Put us in tune with you and your timing, so that we may understand how you make everything beautiful in its time. Thank you also for creating us with a craving for eternity, and for providing your own fullness to satisfy our deepest desires. Fill us with your Holy Spirit and satisfy us with your fullness in Jesus. Help each of us to use the opportunity we have right now in this day of salvation to accept Christ as Savior and to receive eternal life in him. Amen.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.