“What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. 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, drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil – this is the gift of God.”
On this eve of a new year I am taking time to reflect on the past and wonder about the future. I ponder the past year of a contentious election season, a turbulent economy, and horrific, unthinkable violence. I also remember joys and pleasures of the past year, along with some heartache and angst. I give thanks for a world that didn’t come to an end, and a “cliff” not yet collapsed. I speculate, and do some worrying about what another circuit of the solar system might bring.
My New Year’s contemplations remind me of the Roman god Janus, for whom the coming month of Januarius is named. Janus was the god of doors, gates, endings and beginnings. Janus sat astride doors and all transitions looking both to the past and to the future. He was usually represented having two heads for simultaneously looking backward and forward.
I am like Janus, taking time to look back and time to wonder about our future. It is written into our very nature to spend this time reflecting, taking stock of our lives, and resolving to do better next time. In the Creation story of Genesis we see the Lord God ordaining the moon and the sun to be “for signs and for seasons for days and for years” (Genesis 1:14). That means that God specifically placed the sun and moon in the sky to be a great cosmic clock to awaken us to passing time. Every sunset and sunrise, every old and new year, we are to stop, pay attention, give thanks, and to trust.
In today’s Scripture text, Solomon the wise is also looking back and taking stock. We see Solomon tally up the books at year’s end and asking the bottom line question: “What do workers gain from their toil?” Solomon is simply asking the profit from life lived. Solomon is using Hebrew language straight from the mercantile world of doing business and trading. He is calculating the gains and losses of life and asking where we stand.
Solomon’s bottom line calculation about life is both startling and wondrous! Solomon considers the pain and the gain, the heartache and the joy, and concludes that God “has made everything beautiful in its time”. All of this includes the “time to be born” and the “time to die”, the “time to weep” and the “time to laugh” that Solomon wrote about in the previous verses (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). Solomon wants us to see it all as a part of God’s dazzling artistry being worked out in time. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (3:1). We will one day see that everything fits!
But Solomon says that we have “eternity” in our hearts, which means that we want to see the big picture. We want to know now how it will all be made beautiful from beginning to end. But Solomon cautions patience as we cannot yet “fathom what God has done from beginning to end”. God is infinite and we are not! As the Apostle Paul will later write, “We see through a glass darkly, but then face to face” (I Corinthians 13:12).
Solomon carefully adds up the gains and losses of life and comes to the bottom line of how we are to live:
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, drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil – this is the gift of God.
Yes, be happy! Don’t try to unscrew the inscrutable! Don’t try to put it all together right now! Live each day knowing that God has everything well in hand. We will one day see everything, everything as “beautiful in its time”.
So for the New Year: Be happy! Do good! Find satisfaction in all you do! “THIS IS THE GIFT OF GOD!”
Be happy! Do good!
photo by quinn.anya