Many slip into despair at the problems of the world, and the decline we see around us—in our churches, our families, or our own bodies—can lead to our feeling distraught. But is it not true that we are so quick to measure what is happening in our world according to the fleeting time-scales of our own passing lives rather than by the eternal goodness of God who is writing a story in which everything will be beautiful in its time?
The call to follow Christ is a call to steadfastness and immovability (1 Cor. 15:58). Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul includes such resoluteness as part of the very essence of Christian maturity (Eph. 4:13–14).
To be constant, sure, and steady is what it means to be a grown-up believer as opposed to being a childish believer. Mature Christians are calm in the midst of storms of change: “that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:14). One of the places that such constancy comes from in the Christian life is from knowing who we are in Christ and, ironically, from knowing that in a world of winds we too are a mist, a vapor.
I want to suggest that knowing your place in the world and your times in God’s hands provides the most wonderful ballast when all around us is tumult and chaos. Mature believers know who God is, and so they know their place in the times in which they live.
This perspective comes from the book of Ecclesiastes. One of the most helpful things to know in reading the book is that the Hebrew word hebel, often translated as “meaningless” (NIV) or “vanity” (ESV), is far better rendered “mist, vapor, shadow.” The idea is not that everything is meaningless or vain in the sense that everything has no purpose and life has no value. Rather, the book of Ecclesiastes is a long meditation on what the whole Bible recognizes about human life: “Man is like a breath [hebel]; his days are like a passing shadow” (Ps. 144:4). The genius of Ecclesiastes, however, is to set our brevity in the context of God’s eternity. Its stunning surprise is that the more we come to terms with how we are like the morning mist—here one moment and gone the next, whispers spoken on the wind—the more we are free to enjoy life for the good gift from God that it is. This happens the more we are astounded at the constancy of God. He is not like us. He is the Creator and the Judge of all the earth: “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl. 12:14).
Consider the poetic beauty of the opening words: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (3:1). These seasons and times are then outlined with a literary technique that puts extreme opposites side by side as a way of including all the elements that might lie between them. They are totalizing expressions, a way of saying that there is a time for every single type of activity. So the words “a time to be born, and a time to die” (3:2) mean not just that there is a time for the beginning and the end of life, but so too there is a time for all else that takes place between these decisive moments. The poetry continues with these polar opposites, all with the implication that so much of these seasons of life are beyond our control or our planning. They roll into our lives and out again, we experience these changes, we are bound up in a web of relationships with others who come and go, and we ourselves come and go. Everything is always changing, all the time, from the moment we arrive on earth until the time arrives for us to depart.
Already here, in these verses, the implication is that all this is in God’s hands.