“To everything there is a season; a time for every matter under heaven.”
While Solomon will not give us a complete answer to his riddle about vanity until the end of this book, like any good philosopher, he gives us a taste of where he is going in the first half of this chapter. To begin, he sets before us a poem that is likely the most beloved passage contained in this book. I have heard this read at weddings, read this passage at funerals, and preached this passage at my son’s baptism. It also entered the pop culture in the 1960’s through a song by the Byrds, entitled: “Turn, Turn, Turn.” As a pastor, I have also used these words to comfort people during times of trial, reminding them that “this too is for a season.”
As he introduces a series of couplets, Solomon does so by contrasting the notion of appointed times (seasons) with the general sense of time. Philosophers through the ages have pondered the notion of time and how to define the passing thereof. In much of philosophical thought, time has to do with a measure of change on an idea or an object (thus, it is always proper to say that God is timeless as he is unchanging). Solomon seems to follow that same line of thinking, but chooses to measure and distinguish time not by events in the natural world (the rising and setting of the sun or the decay of an atom) but by events in the human experience (birth and death, joy and sorrow).
While our modern “scientific” minds might be inclined to reject that as a notion of dividing time due to its subjectivity and our preference for measurable events, you must recognize that Solomon is exploring this notion five hundred years before the Greeks were turning philosophy into a science. Thus, there is something to be said (if we are going to be fair) about his exploration of ideas.
Also, in defense of Solomon’s approach to marking the passage of time on the basis of human experience, while this is an admittedly subjective approach, is this not how we measure time in our own lives? My niece is graduating from High School this year and so she is speaking of new chapters of her life beginning as she gets ready to enter college. In my years as a tradesman, I often measured time by how close the weekend was and when I taught High School, I most certainly measured time by how close the next break was (Thanksgiving break, Christmas Break, Spring Break, and Summer Break). As I look back at my married life, I often break it up (in my mind) on the basis of where my wife and I happened to be living at the time. We had our first years before children in Maryland, both children were born in Mississippi, then there were the early childhood parenting years in Florida, and now we are in our Pennsylvania years.
People also often mark time not just by the birth of their children but also by the death of their loved ones or by tragedies that struck their family. Sometimes too, people measure seasons in their lives by other things: automobiles that they were driving, jobs that they were working, or community organizations with which they were involved. And all of these things are defined by human experience and not by a more concrete measurement of the passage of time. It is still a measure of change, but the measure is inward and relative to the person rather than being outward and measurable by empirical methodologies.
And so, Solomon sets forth a theory of the passage of time through a series of couplets based on human experiences. He will contrast that with eternity (God’s perspective) as we move further into this chapter, but we get ahead of ourselves. The thing to remember is that for Solomon, both kinds of “time” measurement are important (seasons and times), but the one he dwells upon is the one we most naturally use when we look back on our years of life.