Knowing How to Act, and When (Ecclesiastes 3:1–8)


Psalm 90:12[1] says, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

Acting on the psalmist’s advice, I have done the math, and it turns out that today—January 7, 2015—I am 16,680 days old. (You can calculate your age in days here.) I entered the world on May 8, 1969, in Springfield, Missouri, 73 shorts days before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history by walking on the moon. I have lived in part or the whole of six decades; seen my nation engage in three major wars and eleven presidential elections, which of late have seemed to amount to the same thing; and married the right woman, fathered a healthy son, and fostered two darling girls. It has been, so far, a pretty good life.

Reading Ecclesiastes 3:1–8 reminds me that it also has been a very patterned life. I wake up in the morning and go to sleep in the evening. From childhood through adolescence and into early adulthood, school began in the fall and ended in the spring. Now, well into the twenty-fourth year of my professional life, I experience the weekly rhythm of office days and days off. “For everything there is a season,” the Preacher informs us, “and a time for every matter under heaven” (3:1).

When we number our days, we get a heart of wisdom because we learn that some activities are appropriate at some times, but not at others. There is, for example, “a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted” (3:2). The death of a loved one gives us “a time to weep,” and a funny joke “a time to laugh” (3:4). Only a fool laughs at funerals and cries at a comedy club, however. Our nation is emerging out of “a time for war,” even as we look forward to “a time for peace” (3:8). Only a fool would seek peace when the enemy is at the gate or prosecute a war when the enemy offers surrender. A wise man acts appropriately for the time in which he finds himself.

Not surprisingly, Jesus was a wise man who knew his time. For thirty years, he laid low in Nazareth, a small village in the hills of Galilee. And then, after Herod arrested his cousin John the Baptist, he emerged from obscurity, proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Once, when his brothers urged him to precipitously announce himself the Messiah at a religious feast, Jesus said, “My time has not yet come” (John 7:6). Only as he celebrated Passover in Jerusalem, on the eve of his crucifixion, did Jesus inform his disciples, “My time is at hand” (Matthew 26:18). Jesus knew how to act, and just as importantly, when.

A life filled with wisdom will follow Christ’s example, and act in right way at the right moment. Only by learning to do so will we be able to say, with Jane Taylor’s nursery rhyme:

How pleasant it is, at the end of the day,

No follies to have to repent;

But reflect on the past, and be able to say,

That my time has been properly spent.

 

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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