What’s the real goal and purpose in life and the right response to common problems? A popular song pleading noble, even Biblical sentiments, gets it wrong on both fronts. ◊
If you’re over the age of 50, you’re no doubt familiar with the popular anti-war song by the American folk rock group the Byrds called Turn, Turn, Turn.1 The basic lyrics were actually pulled directly from the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 with a simple recurring chorus:
To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under heaven
The song became very popular as it combined an apparent reverent sourcing of the Bible while pleading for peace and tolerance at a time of war escalation in Vietnam in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Now an Oldie, this song (if anyone would even listen to it) would probably have the same effect on a respectful but secular nation of young rebels pleading for new levels of peace and tolerance in this modern era.
In both time eras, this song misses the real point of the Scriptural text.
Here is the full Bible text from 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.
While Pete Seeger’s song ends with his own creative couplet reflecting the mood of the times: “A time for love, a time for hate, a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late” – it actually does not capture the message of the Book of Ecclesiastes, which simply put, is that regardless of the problems in this broken world, God can be trusted and He will ultimately justify His ways.
Truth Be Told About Ecclesiastes
Pete Seeger actually gave an interview in 1998 in which he confessed the following:
“I don’t read the Bible that often. I leaf through it occasionally and I’m amazed by the foolishness at times and the wisdom at other times. I call it the greatest book of folklore ever given. Not that there isn’t a lot of wisdom in it. You can trace the history of people poetically.”2
Interesting that we often put cultural value on people who admittedly may not really know what they are talking about.
While the Book of Ecclesiastes is traditionally ascribed to King Solomon, son of David, who lived in the 10th century AD, there are debates about portions written centuries later to reflect Solomon’s thoughts. Nevertheless, I believe the themes of Ecclesiastes are clear and consistent and reflect the forlorn wisdom of a world-wise man.
Here are 10 Themes of the Book of Ecclesiastes I see that tell us more about the nature of God and the purpose of life:
- Vanity of Vanities – the search for human joy, happiness, and satisfaction in earthly pursuits apart from a relationship with God is destined to fall short and come up empty. Vanity of vanities…vanity of vanities! All is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12:8)
- Death Comes to All – both the fool and the wise man die – there is no escaping this final sentence. How the wise man dies just like the fool!….for all is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:16-17)
- Life is God’s Gift – man should pleasure in life and his work, for this is from the hand of God. (Ecclesiastes 2:24, 9:9)
- God Controls All Things in Time – there is a season, a time for every matter under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) and God makes everything beautiful in its time (Ecclesiastes 3:11), even those things that are difficult and not understood at any given time.
- God will Judge All – God will judge both the righteous and the wicked (Ecclesiastes 3:17) – there is no escaping this plight.
- Vanity in Wealth and Honor – ambition and possessions are vanity apart from God, for who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life? (Ecclesiastes 6:12)
- Wisdom Over Wealth and Wickedness – in a sin-corrupted world, Godly wisdom prevails, for he who fears God shall come forth from them all. (Ecclesiastes 7:18)
- God’s Ways are Inscrutable – even through wisdom, the ways of God are beyond our capacities; even through a wise man claims to know he cannot find it out. (Ecclesiastes 8:17)
- Enjoy Life with God – God approves a righteous life, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. (Ecclesiastes 9:7-8)
- Fear and Obey God – all things in life are reduced to this simple mandate: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (Ecclesiastes 12:13)
While fraught with hardship and difficulty, one’s life, purpose, and standing under the authority of God can be known and understood enough to be endured and even enjoyed with proper perspective. And available to all, that wisdom, given by God, is documented for us in His Word.
Do you have Solomon-like perspective on the nature of life and God?
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. – Ecclesiastes 12:13-14
1 Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There is a Season), by Pete Seeger, recorded by the Byrds, Columbia Records, 1965.
2 Songwriters on Songwriting, by Paul Zolllo, De Capo Press, 2003, as cited in Song Facts, https://www.songfacts.com/facts/the-byrds/turn-turn-turn-to-everything-there-is-a-season.