Over the last couple of days the daily readings from the lectionary I’m following have been from the first three chapters of Ecclesiastes. This morning’s reading was the famous “a time for everything” passage in Ecclesiastes 3:1-15, popularized by The Byrds, and no doubt resonant with the experience of many. The seasons come and go, and life looks pretty much the same. Ecclesiastes is, I suppose, considered to be a bit of a bleak book (although I’ve always rather liked it), one that gives expression to how the world is experienced by human beings. We’re born, we struggle, we seize what fleeting pleasures are on offer, we die, and around and around it goes. Nothing new.
And then, Ecc. 3:15:
Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account.
God will call the past to account? Not being a Hebrew scholar, I checked a couple of other English translations:
- NASB – “for God seeks what has passed by.”
- ESV – “God seeks what has been driven away.”
- ASV – “God seeketh again that which is passed away.”
- KJV – “God requireth that which is past.”
- NRSV – “God seeks out what has gone by.”
A few other translations seem to fundamentally change the meaning (the NLT almost makes Yahweh sound like a kind of personalized samsara, actively perpetuating the cyclical experience—”God makes the same things happen over and over again”), but the general idea seems to be that the Teacher thinks that God will somehow demand something from the past, that he will seek out what has gone for the purposes, one assumes, of repairing or addressing it somehow.
Christians are, perhaps, accustomed to reading books like Ecclesiastes as something like “this is what people thought before Jesus arrived on the scene.” Things were barren, futile, hopeless, and meaningless until God did something new in Christ. Christianity is, after all, a response to something new—God Incarnate, come to save his people, the God who “gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not (Rom. 4:17), the God who we believe will usher in a new heaven and a new earth, where the old order of things has passed away (Rev. 21:1, 4). With all of that Christian “stuff” going on in our heads, it may be tempting to read Ecclesiastes as nothing more than the diagnosis of a problem for which the gospel is the cure (I think this is a bad way to read any book of the Bible, but that’s a whole other topic…).
But the last part of 3:15 got my attention this morning. Apparently, even the Teacher, who knew nothing about Jesus, had a hope that the past would not be lost, that God expected something of it, that history might just be more than an endless train of aimless cyclical repetitions, that what was gone was not really gone. In a tiny little phrase surrounded by laments about the meaninglessness and futility of human life and frustration about the limitations of human existence, the Teacher gives voice to the profoundly human hope that that there will, in fact, be something new under the sun.