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Throughout the month of August, we’re looking at Ecclesiastes, that strange and seemingly “modern” Old Testament book that depicts what happens when humanity searches for ultimate meaning apart from God.
Of all the songs that have reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, which has the oldest lyrics?
That would be Turn, Turn, Turn, by The Byrds, which topped the charts on December 4, 1965. Folk singer Pete Seeger, who wrote the song in 1959, borrowed the text almost verbatim from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 – words that may have been written by Solomon as early as the 10th century B.C.
The success of the song has guaranteed that those eight verses are now, hands-down, the most beloved text in all of Ecclesiastes:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
A time to be born and a time to die,
A time to plant and a time to uproot,
A time to kill and a time to heal,
A time to tear down and a time to build,
A time to weep and a time to laugh,
A time to mourn and a time to dance,
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
A time to search and a time to give up,
A time to keep and a time to throw away,
A time to tear and a time to mend,
A time to be silent and a time to speak,
A time to love and a time to hate,
A time for war and a time for peace.
Seeger added “To everything turn, turn, turn” as a refrain, as well as the line “I swear it’s not too late” after the last line about peace. The Byrds’ version of the song, released during the early days of the Vietnam War, became a kind of national anthem for the peace movement.
Old Testament scholar Iain Provan notes that these verses picture human experience as a tapestry of woven “times.”
The author uses a figure of speech known as merismus – a statement of polar extremes that is meant to include everything in between, such as good and bad, easy and hard, North and South. He lists 28 items in 14 pairs. That can’t be a coincidence. Seven was an important number for the Bible’s authors, since it signified completion or perfection. These multiples of seven are thus a way of saying, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every imaginable activity under heaven.”
Solomon continues, “[God] has made everything beautiful in its time” (3:11). Provan suggests that this is a statement of balance, and a reminder for fragile human beings to be patient.
God is the Lord of time, as well as “the times” in which we live. He is sovereign over our hours and our days, even though we may very much want something to happen faster (or slower) than God seems to have in mind.
In modern secular culture, however, it’s become a given that we ourselves need to take command of time and make it work for us.
The dark side of that picture is Veruca Salt, the pre-teen drama queen of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: “I want it, and I want it now!” A more positive spin emerges in the 1989 film The Dead PoetsSociety, in which Robin Williams plays a newly arrived English teacher at a buttoned-up private school for teenage boys.
Williams’ character tries to get his young charges to see things in a new way, even hopping up on a couple of desks to illustrate adopting a different perspective. He defies tradition. He urges the boys to become creative individuals, not clones or drones.
At one point he gathers them around a hallway display case. There are pictures of school sports heroes and the trophies they won. If those champions – a number of them now dead and gone – could say anything to these boys who still have most of their lives in front of them, what would it be?
Williams moves among them, whispering two Latin words in their ears: carpe diem. “Seize the day.”
This is the moment. It’s your moment. It will soon be gone, so don’t let it slip away. Carpe diem is how advertisers sell Red Bull, off-road vehicles, and toothpaste that will wow your next date. You owe it to yourself to be the best version of yourself, so you’d better act now.
It’s poignant and heartbreaking that Robin Williams, afflicted by a neurological disease, could not bear to go forward without being the person he had always been – the life of every party. In despair, unable to figure out how to seize the day when the time for laughter had become the time for tears, he took his own life in 2014.
Solomon also invites us to seize the day – but with a caveat.
Yes, we are to live in the joy of each moment. “I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in their toil – this is the gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13). Living in the present moment means we don’t inhabit the past (the domain of regret) or fret about the future (the domain of fear).
But Solomon’s version of carpe diem is an expression of faith, not self-fulfillment.
Instead of scrambling to collect a few more Big Moments before we get too old or run out of money, we gratefully receive what God provides every day: a summer sunset, the taste of peach pie, good friends, a fascinating book, and the miracle that we’re still breathing.
We seize the day by receiving God’s simple joys with gratitude.
And we do it for the sake of others. As Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). It’s not about us.
In the end, not one of us knows how many “times” we still have left.
But we can begin every new morning with open hands, open hearts, and eager expectation that the God who loves us is making everything beautiful in his time.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.