Ecclesiastes 3:1-14 January 15, 2022
“For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven.”
Ecclesiastes is the most pessimistic and skeptical book in the Old Testament. Few sermons come from the book, yet these words sound like old friends. Pete Seegar set this text to music in 1959 because he was mad at his publisher. In his words,
“I got a letter from my publisher, ‘Pete, I can’t sell these protest songs you write.’ I sat down with a tape recorder and said, ‘I can’t write the kind of songs you want. You gotta go to somebody else. This is the only kind of song I know how to write.’ I pulled out this slip of paper in my pocket and improvised a melody to it in fifteen minutes. And I sent it to him. And I got a letter from him the next week that said, ‘Wonderful! Just what I’m looking for.’1
Seegar only added seven words to the biblical text. The most obvious is the word “Turn.” After the phrase “a time for war, a time for peace,” he added, “I swear it’s not too late.” Because he wrote so little, he felt he should only take 5% of the substantial royalties. He donated the rest to causes.
The publisher sold the song to The Byrds, and the rest is history. They gave the song a samba beat that was a little more danceable, but that doesn’t explain why a piece of biblical text became so popular. You might expect this song from a religious singer like Amy Grant or a Gospel singer like Mahalia Jackson. But the Byrds were a folk-rock group and later transitioned to psychedelic rock. Their only other memorable hit was “Hey Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Biblical poetry over 2000 years old carried the popularity of “Turn, Turn, Turn” to number one on the Billboard singles chart for three weeks in December 1965. It’s the only scripture to make a number-one hit. Seegar wrote the right song for the time and place. The world was not just turning but wildly gyrating. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led civil rights marchers to Selma, Alabama. The brutality of firehoses, clubs, and dogs used on nonviolent marchers shocked the nation. Later came the riots and fires in the Watts neighborhood of LA. Malcolm X was assassinated. The Voting Rights Act was passed. Astronaut Ed White became the first man to walk in space. The Vietnam War escalated as more combat troops arrived and the first massive anti-war protests began. Mohammad Ali won the heavyweight boxing title with his brash style and unorthodox fighting technique. It was a time of incredible anxiety and change, making great leaps forward one moment, then turning backward the next. Turn, Turn, Turn.
This dramatic tension came after a time of American optimism. After winning World War II came the baby boom, people rising in careers and getting houses in the suburbs. Whether you liked Eisenhower or Kennedy, these were good times for many Americans. The iconic TV show about the 50s was “Happy Days.” I was born in 1964, so I missed all this, but our Bible study group observed the 60s began with great optimism about changing the world, but all reform meets resistance. Kennedy was assassinated, and as more people left out of the American Dream pushed for inclusion, every institution was conflicted; government, churches, and families.
I wonder if the “Turn, Turn, Turn” resonated with people because the words speak about holding contradictory things in tension. Life is not always simplistically one thing or the other. Progress is not a straight line upward. Nor is long-standing injustice inevitable. Not all reform is progress, and not all tradition is fair or just. The song is not judgmental or cynical; it’s not unduly pessimistic or optimistic; it’s not a clear prophecy of the future. Its message can be summed up in the Alcoholics Anonymous saying, “You must learn to take life on life’s terms.” What is it time for right now?
Notice how the structure of the poetry calls us to hold things in tension. The first two lines put the conditions we see as positive and hopeful first:
A time to be born and a time to die;
A time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted;
The following five lines flip the more negative aspect first. A time to kill, break down, weep, mourn, and throw away stones. Then we get three positives again. It’s a time to embrace, seek and keep. This alternating continues to the end, reinforcing the message that life won’t always be what you want. You must pay attention and take life on life’s terms. The good life, the life of faith, discerns the moment and comes into attunement with what is. As Paul says, “We weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.” Wisdom discerns the moment and leans into reality.
The prophet Isaiah (Is 28) makes a similar point with the metaphor of planting and harvesting seasons. You can’t just plow all the time just because you like plowing. You can’t plant in December nor harvest in Spring. The successful farmer must work with the land, rain, and wind and adjust accordingly. It is the same with our spiritual lives and with the church.
What is it time for now? I wish I knew. The times are complicated, but I can offer some guidelines.
First, it is a season of acknowledging grief. For the first time in decades, life expectancy has declined in the US. COVID has brought many kinds of suffering. It’s disrupted the natural development of our children, pushed us into isolation, and every community organization feels the lack of participation and volunteers, from churches to symphonies. On New Year’s Day, as we shared joys and concerns in church, we noted how many deaths our community endured in December. We are the oldest county in the oldest state.
Acknowledging grief is essential for our spiritual health. Otherwise, we become negative, angry, or depressed, and we don’t know why. Greif is in the air we breathe as we long for how many people we once had in the sanctuary, and we miss how things used to be. It’s become cliché to say things aren’t going back; we live in a new normal. But we don’t always believe it. I wish I could take you back to where you were three years ago. It would be much easier for me. But this is not in my power. As Heraclitus said, “You can’t step twice into the same place in the river. It is a time to mourn, but it won’t always be, and we can do other work even while we grieve.
Second, I believe it is a season of recovery and restoration. It’s a season of facing fears and trying new behaviors and attitudes. It’s a season to lean in to change. If you let go of the past, you can see who you are right now. Friends, I don’t want you to lose sight of all the goodness you have. This church is full of wisdom, kindness, grace, and resources. The wider community needs us to be a part of the restoration. You are not too old or too tired to do a new thing. Ecclesiastes urges us to embrace the polarity of opposites. We can grieve and grow. We can accept the present and embrace a different future. It is time to let go of some things so we can grab hold of something new. God calls us to turn, turn, and turn. I swear it’s not too late.
I love the note of joy in the last verses of this scripture. Ecclesiastes is both a reality check and an encouragement. I read through the whole book and noted that the author tells us seven times to take joy in all the good things in life, no matter how small. Life can be challenging, but God’s goodness still flows. Joy embraces the small, ordinary things and aligns us.
Joy surprises us even in the worst of times. I recently subscribed to a Substack called “A kind of refugee”2 by Larissa Babij, which reports on daily life in Ukraine. This week she wrote:
On Monday, I met a soldier who had shrapnel lodged in many parts of his body for a couple of months while he was a prisoner of war. They were surgically removed only after he returned to Ukraine in the fall.
Sitting in a cafe, I marvel at this tall young man, still underweight, with bright, intelligent eyes. He came in on his own two legs; it’s the third day he’s walking unassisted. After the explosion that filled his body with shards of metal and glass, he could only move his head.
“What did you do to get from that state to this?” I ask in wonder, watching his hands and fingers move lightly, same as anybody else’s.
We talk about how the body naturally repels foreign objects; small pieces of metal or glass would gradually migrate toward the surface of his skin. “And you pulled them out with your fingers?” Yes, he says and smiles.
Life in Ukraine emphasizes the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, and people hold suffering and hope in the same breath. As Babij concludes:
It’s been a year of great changes. As we move into the next, I wish you vibrant health, radiant love, spaciousness within, and the courage to meet every new challenge with your own great power!
Turn, turn, turn. I swear it’s not too late.