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The call to follow Christ is a call to steadfastness and immovability (1 Cor. 15:58). Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul includes such resoluteness as part of the very essence of Christian maturity (Eph. 4:13–14).
To be constant, sure, and steady is what it means to be a grown-up believer as opposed to being a childish believer. Mature Christians are calm in the midst of storms of change: “that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14). One of the places that such constancy comes from in the Christian life is from knowing who we are in Christ and, ironically, from knowing that in a world of winds we too are a mist, a vapor.
I want to suggest that knowing your place in the world and your times in God’s hands provides the most wonderful ballast when all around us is tumult and chaos. Mature believers know who God is, and so they know their place in the times in which they live.
This perspective comes from the book of Ecclesiastes. One of the most helpful things to know in reading the book is that the Hebrew word hebel, often translated as “meaningless” (NIV) or “vanity” (ESV), is far better rendered “mist, vapor, shadow.” The idea is not that everything is meaningless or vain in the sense that everything has no purpose and life has no value. Rather, the book of Ecclesiastes is a long meditation on what the whole Bible recognizes about human life: “Man is like a breath [hebel]; his days are like a passing shadow” (Ps. 144:4). The genius of Ecclesiastes, however, is to set our brevity in the context of God’s eternity. Its stunning surprise is that the more we come to terms with how we are like the morning mist—here one moment and gone the next, whispers spoken on the wind—the more we are free to enjoy life for the good gift from God that it is. This happens the more we are astounded at the constancy of God. He is not like us. He is the Creator and the Judge of all the earth: “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl. 12:14).
It is in Ecclesiastes 3 that we get the most beautiful contemplation on our passing, changing times in contrast to God’s unchanging, eternal fullness. It is the combination of these two perspectives that provides the anchor to our lives of change.
Consider the poetic beauty of the opening words: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (3:1). These seasons and times are then outlined with a literary technique that puts extreme opposites side by side as a way of including all the elements that might lie between them. They are totalizing expressions, a way of saying that there is a time for every single type of activity. So the words “a time to be born, and a time to die” (3:2) mean not just that there is a time for the beginning and the end of life, but so too there is a time for all else that takes place between these decisive moments. The poetry continues with these polar opposites, all with the implication that so much of these seasons of life are beyond our control or our planning. They roll into our lives and out again, we experience these changes, we are bound up in a web of relationships with others who come and go, and we ourselves come and go. Everything is always changing, all the time, from the moment we arrive on earth until the time arrives for us to depart.
Already here, in these verses, the implication is that all this is in God’s hands. The world is not utterly chaotic, a cascading flood of events all happening at the same time; rather, by saying that there is “a time for everything,” the text issues a gentle challenge to our modern world’s obsession of doing everything all the time. The sense is that certain seasons are appropriate, some rhythms are right, and the passage is building to the idea that everything happens because of its appointed time.
This becomes clear in the prose section of Ecclesiastes 3. Here is the deepest and greatest of comforts for us in our changing lives. The Preacher says: “God has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Eccl. 3:11). Notice how this verse implies that God is not bound by the changing times in the way that we are: the times happen to us, but God happens to the times. That is, He is the One who is able to make each time and event beautiful in its time. We are the ones who cannot see the end from the beginning and work out what the coherent narrative is, but God can. When something starts and something ends, God has done it.
More than this, we are being told here that what God has done each step of the way in that story is beautiful. I believe this verse is teaching us that we have a longing to be able to see the whole story, we have a deep, profound sense—eternity in our hearts—that there must be some coherence to the parts, a metanarrative of life, the universe, and everything else, to explain the mini-narrative of my individual life. This overarching perspective comes from only one place and one reality: the God outside the changing times who has written the story of the world from the fountain of His eternal fullness.
Consider these amazing words by Francis Turretin on the eternity of God:
True eternity has been defined by the Scholastics to be “the interminable possession of life—complete, perfect, and at once.” Thus, it excludes succession no less than end and ought to be conceived as a standing, not a flowing, now. The reason is because nothing flows away with time from the life of God as from ours. God has every moment at once whatever we have dividedly by succession of time. Hence philosophers have well said that neither the future nor the past (he will be or was), but only the present (he is) can properly be applied to him. For the eternal duration of God embraces indeed all time—the past, the present, and future; but nothing in him can be past or future because his life remains always the same and unchangeable.
We sometimes think God is like us, just a much bigger version of us. But of course, the Bible teaches that God is not like us and that there is no one and nothing to whom we can compare God (Isa. 40:25; 46:5). This helpfully schools us when we read Scripture’s similes and comparisons of God to things in the created order, for the fact is that God’s being is entirely and completely different from ours. Turretin expresses that concept here in the amazing idea that all time is present to God in one “moment” because He is eternal and not contained within time. Our minds cannot comprehend this. Times pass, seasons come and go, we are like morning mists—yet not only does God live forever, but all of forever is a standing moment of perpetual plenitude to God. He is.
I believe this is precisely how the book of Ecclesiastes seeks to comfort us in all the changing scenes of life. We sing, “Change and decay in all around I see; O Thou who changest not, abide with me.” Many slip into despair at the problems of the world, and the decline we see around us—in our churches, our families, or our own bodies—can lead to our feeling distraught. But is it not true that we are so quick to measure what is happening in our world according to the fleeting time-scales of our own passing lives rather than by the eternal goodness of God who is writing a story in which everything will be beautiful in its time? His eternity provides a stunning contrast to our vaporous lives and a bedrock backdrop to all the events of world history.
Indeed, this is why in Ecclesiastes there is profound confidence for the future. It lies in the fact that “God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work” (Eccl. 3:17). Mature believers are not blown here and there by world events; rather, we see ourselves as merely temporal world inhabitants who know that every single moment, every act, every injustice, every wickedness, and every act of righteousness too will each have its day in court. How can this be? The answer is found in God’s eternity. This includes what happened to you last year, or twenty years ago, and the brutal events of history that have long since been forgotten and that lie buried in the sands of time are each present to God at once. This is why Ecclesiastes says, “God seeks what has been driven away” (v. 15). Like a shepherd setting out to recover a lost sheep, the fullness of God’s eternity enables Him to recall every moment there has ever been and to call it to account before Him.
This helps us to live in light of eternity. The winds of change hold no fear for the mature believer. We are a mist: “My days pass away like smoke” (Ps. 102:3), but God endures forever:
Of old you laid the foundations of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
but you are the same, and your years have no end. (vv. 25–27)