Beauty and the Fear of Not Knowing
A couple of years ago on a hot summer’s day after a particularly sweaty church service I decided that the most appropriate way for me to cool down would be to take a nice cold bath. With this in mind I duly returned home, ran the cold water tap in the bath, carried my stereo into the bathroom and slipped into a nice two hour slumber, lulled into a land of icy dreams by the dulcet tones of whatever my favourite band was at the time.
Later that night, after an afternoon and evening of spectacular regurgitative fireworks, I lay in my bed unable to eat, drink or move. I don’t mind saying that in this moment I was feeling a little sorry for myself, and in the dark lonely night I found myself wondering in anguish,
“Why has this happened to me?”
The short answer would be “because you gave yourself shock by sleeping in an icy bath, moron!”, but in Ecclesiastes 3:1-15 Solomon deals with reality of life’s changing events in a much more comprehensive way…
Solomon begins the most famous passage of Ecclesiastes (and arguably of the Old Testament) with the statement,
For everything there is a season. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
In his opening sentence, Solomon ensures that we are aware of what he is about to discuss: he intends to discuss everything. He is so keen that we understand that when he says ‘everything’ he actually means ‘everything’ that he litters his writing with numerous words and phrases to emphasise his point. He speaks of everything ‘under the Sun’ (Ecc 3:1), from ‘beginning to end’ (Ecc 3:11), and uses poetical ‘merisms’1 to encapsulate all that he speaks of.
Why is Solomon so keen for us to understand that he is literally referring to everything? The answer lies in the potentially controversial point that Solomon makes in verse 11:
He [God] has made everything beautiful in its time. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
Take a moment to understand the extent of what Solomon is saying here. In this one sentence, Solomon boldly declares that the time for everything is set by God, yet not only that, but that God has actually made each thing beautiful/fitting/appropriate.
We may be happy to think of God ordaining a time for a child’s birth and the joy that it brings, and we can see perhaps how God has made that beautiful. However, Solomon is referring to all things and all times. How are we supposed to understand this statement in terms of a child’s death, or a huge natural disaster, or any other of the countless tragedies we see day to day in the world?
Unfortunately, if you were expecting a simple answer, you’re going to be bitterly disappointed. Solomon’s answer is that we cannot know the answer. In the second half of verse 11, Solomon picks up on the quest for purpose in good times and bad that is so very much a part of our soul:
He [God] has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that we cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
Into the very core of man (in Hebrew thought, the heart), Solomon tells us, God has put this awareness of the passing of time and a wondering as to the purpose of events in that time. We find ourselves with the desire to understand all of the events that occur around us, perhaps with a desire to bring some level of control into our lives. Yet, at the same time, God has made it so that we are not able to ever reach that point of understanding.
There is a time for all things (happy and sad), God has made everything beautiful in its time, and we will desire to understand how that is so and yet be unable to do so. This is the human condition in Solomon’s eyes.
The question that surely arises is ‘Why?’.
Why would God create position of bringing into existence things with ultimate beauty and purpose, involving creatures that desire to see that purpose but who are unable to do so?
Solomon gives us our answer in verse 15:
He [God] has done it so that people fear before Him. (Ecclesiastes 3:15)
The purpose of these events and our lack of understanding and control in them, and the purpose of Solomon’s entire passage here, is to display the Sovereignty of God. Solomon wants us to see and to know that God is in complete control and we are not.
God makes everything beautiful in it’s time, not for the sake of mere asthetic beauty, but in order to glorify Him.
Think for a moment of your Salvation. God made the death and resurrection of Christ beautiful in its time. Consider the cross, the blood, the gore, the suffering and the anguish. The means by which salvation is secured is not obviously beautiful and yet, to those of us who are being saved, it is the most beautiful moment in history. The cross is beautiful because there we find life and in it God is glorified as Saviour.
As we come to understand the sovereignty of God, his complete control over all things, his ordering of the times, that ‘whatever God does endures forever’ (Ecc 3:14), what should our response be?
For Solomon, our response should be to fear God, and to stop struggling against Him. Solomon revisits a point he has made previously in verse 9:
What gain has the worker from his toil? (Ecclesiastes 3:9)
Solomon asks: ‘Are you not tired of struggling against God weary through trying to control the uncontrollable events that engulf you?’ The answer is not found in ourselves. The answer is in knowing that we may not know the answer ‘under the sun’, but we are confident that we have a God who does. A God who loves us enough to die for us. A God we can cling to in the worst moments. A God who holds all things in his hands. A God we can trust in all things. A God who is working everything in conformity with his will. A God who makes everything beautiful in its time.
1. A merism is a common figure of speech in Hebrew poetry, whereby two polar opposites are used to denote completeness e.g. “A time to be born and a time to die” covers the two extremes and all that may happen in-between them.