Football season is here, which means that many of us will spend our Saturdays and Sundays watching games either in person or on television. Each game begins the same. Two opposing teams take the field with the same score: 0-0. The game kicks off and concludes when time elapses and the scoreboard announces the final outcome. There is one winner and one loser.
Casual fans of the sport are concerned with one thing, that being who won the game. While pundits may give insights as to why one team won and the other team lost, the only thing that is memorable in the years to come is which team won the game. The individual efforts of the players and even the final score itself will fade into the sea of the forgotten.
This is the point of arguably the most famous verses in Ecclesiastes, found in chapter 3:
For everything there is a season,
a time for every activity under heaven.
A time to be born and a time to die.
A time to plant and a time to harvest.
A time to kill and a time to heal.
A time to tear down and a time to build up.
A time to cry and a time to laugh.
A time to grieve and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones.
A time to embrace and a time to turn away.
A time to search and a time to quit searching.
A time to keep and a time to throw away.
A time to tear and a time to mend.
A time to be quiet and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate.
A time for war and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, NLT)
Qoheleth captured the essence of life’s extremes. But like yesterday’s football game, he doesn’t address the 60 minutes of struggle between kickoff and the final gun. Yes, there is a time to be born and a time to die, the most obvious of extremes. But he’s using a literary device called a merism that is inclusive of everything that lies between the extremes of birth and death. He assumes that the reader knows to include all that is in the middle.
Even though he cites several couplets in extremist language, it’s not the extremes that he’s necessarily concerned with. His point is that the monotony of the middle space provides no real profit. What is the value of time outs, replays, commercial breaks, and halftime? Life lived between birth and death has a lot of those time outs and commercial breaks, doesn’t it? And the same principle is applied to each successive couplet. Qoheleth provides his own interpretive commentary in the verses that follow.
What do people really get for all their hard work? I have seen the burden God has placed on us all. Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can. And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God. And I know that whatever God does is final. Nothing can be added to it or taken from it. God’s purpose is that people should fear him. What is happening now has happened before, and what will happen in the future has happened before, because God makes the same things happen over and over again. (Ecclesiastes 3:9-15, NLT)
He cynically saw these events as the busy work that God has prescribed human kind and judged it to be pointless. If God had a purpose behind it all, he doesn’t see it. Our entrapment in time does nothing more than emphasize our mortality. So what does he recommend? First, Qoheleth suggests that we make the most of the time we live between the extremes. The ability to enjoy life and be happy is a gift that comes from God. To focus on the extremes is to waste the majority of the time we are granted on earth.
Second, don’t define your life by its extreme events. We are more than our birth date and our date of death, no matter how difficult they may be. The extremes he described cannot be minimized or avoided and should not become the thermostat of how we live our ordinary days. As the well known poem asks, “What are you doing with your dash?”
Finally, he challenges us to revere God. While we may not understand the absurdity of life’s extremes, God does have a purpose: that we will live in humble reverence of him. When he wrote that these things happen over and over again, I believe he is describing the entire human race. Therefore, we don’t have to take life’s extremes personally, for these are the things that everyone has faced or will face.