The passage we have just read from Ecclesiastes ends:
A time for war and a time for peace.
It ends the sequence of opposites which, for the author of Ecclesiastes, sums up the state of the world. This is probably the best known passage from the Bible’s least known book. I guess most of us would be hard pressed to find where it is in the Old Testament without looking at the contents page first. In case you’re looking, it comes after Proverbs, and before the Song of Songs and Isaiah. And like Song of Songs it claims to have been written by Solomon. It says of itself that it is:
The words of the “Teacher,” the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
And the only actual son of David who was also king in Jerusalem was Solomon. The Hebrew title for the book picks up the word “Teacher” from that first verse: Qoheleth. Literally it means “gatherer.” It refers someone who “calls an assembly” or who “gathers wisdom.” It is a title, or it could even be a personal name, so we’ll call the author: Qoheleth. But the book is an oddity. Qoheleth has a bleak, you might even say, nihilistic view of the world. The very first thing he says is:
Vanity if vanities, all is vanity.
His outlook is world weary. The other familiar phrase which he coins is:
There is nothing new under the sun.
Qoheleth has seen it all, and reckons that it is all for nothing. He says:
All the streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full.
All those rivers and the sea never fills up! Perhaps he needed to have a geography teacher explain the water cycle to him, and show him why that is. But even then all he would see would be an endless aimless cycling round and round. Stranger still is that he barely mentions God. The book takes an almost atheistic outlook. Which might lead us to suspect that perhaps the author isn’t Solomon after all. But that also might lead us to ask, how did it get into the Bible. But it did and here it is.
So he gives us this series of opposites which appear to sum up the world for him. It begins:
A time to be born and a time to die.
Perhaps this is the truth of our existence, mostly starkly stated. True to form Qoholeth merely declares the reality he sees. This is the way it is, and there is no getting round it. Of course for today he gives us:
A time for war and a time for peace.
It is this one line which makes the reading as a whole appropriate for the days in which remember war, and the sacrifices made in it. A time for war and a time for peace. Perhaps those words never felt more real than the moment, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, when the guns finally fell silent bringing an end to the First World War. That transition from war to peace, clearly witnessed at the end of both the first and second world wars, has tended to be our focus during these days in November. It is a time for us to give thanks that war has ended and to lament at its cost. Another of Qoheleth’s pairings is:
A time to mourn and a time to dance.
Most of us I suspect can picture in our mind’s eye newsreel film of the dancing in places like Piccadilly Circus and in front of Buckingham Palace at the end of the Second World War. But today perhaps represents the other half of that pairing: a time to mourn.
The trouble is that the boundary between war and peace is no longer as clear cut as it was for Qoheleth or as it was at the end of the two world wars. For the vast majority of us here, we live in a state of constant peace. Apart from the conflict in Northern Ireland, war has not directly touched our shores for nearly 80 years. And yet the world and even our own nation has been involved in conflict continuously since 1945. And British Service personnel have been in the firing line, have been wounded and have died on active duty in every year with possible exception of 1968. That time for war is experienced by most of us in the peace of our living rooms, but it seems that there is in fact no end to that time for war.
Qoheleth declares that this is the way things are. The world is a collection of mutually exclusive circumstances.
A time to break down and a time to build up.
If it is time for, it cannot be time for the other. Qoheleth doesn’t seem to believe in God, but for those of us who do there is a risk in accepting his words. It is a very easy step to take, to go from accepting that “this is the way things are” to thinking “this is the way things should be.” I think we can look at the world and mostly agree with what Qohelth describes. But then we are at risk because our faith commitment suggests that God is somehow in control. And therefore both sides of each of those pairings might be seen in some way as God’s intention:
A time to plant and a time to pluck up what is planted.
The reading works just as well for a Harvest Festival as it does for a Remembrance Service. But it becomes more problematic when we do come to “the time for war.” We run the risk of justifying war on the basis of our faith it God. That war is somehow alright, because that is, according to Qoheleth, how the world is, and that is, according to us, how God wants it. And this for me is the problem with this Sunday in Church. This time of mourning, which is real, and should be honoured with lament, can become used to justify war, any war, especially future wars, which as Christians we should be opposed to. It is no part of God plan that his children should be killing one another. We honour the sacrifice of those who sincerely gave their lives in the hope of a better world. But they should be saying to us that we should work to find ways to avoid wars, rather than justifying the conflicts that place more people like them in harm’s way. There may be times for war, and we can certainly hope for times of peace. Just because that is the way is, doesn’t mean that it is the way it should be.
The trouble is Qoheleth doesn’t share our faith commitment. And indeed his parings don’t make a consistent moral judgement. Whilst in some of the pairs it is easy to decide which is the “good” time to be living in, and which time might be “bad”:
A time to love and a time to hate.
But some of the others are much more ambiguous:
A time to throw away stones and a time to gather stones together.
How would we choose between those times. We could admit that indeed there may be times for both of those, but we couldn’t possibly say which was more to be desired. The truth is Qoheleth doesn’t share our faith commitment. This passage is just a further elaboration of his world weary, nihilistic outlook. Look at the world he says. Everything swings back and forth between this mutually exclusive situations:
A time to kill and a time to heal.
A time to weep and a time to laugh.
Each of them cancels the other out. Existence adds up to nothing, he says: Vanity of vanities! All is vanity Everything is in vain.
I think we do need to hear Qoheleth He is broadly right about the way our lives often move between these mutually exclusive moods and situations. And we might accept with him that they are for the most part imposed on us as we experience them. The people who we remember today, those who gave their lives, did not choose to live at a time when that sacrifice was asked of them. It is just the way the world is. That is tragedy, and why we must remember, mourn and give thanks. But because we have a faith commitment that Qoheleth lacked, we do not have to become as world weary and cynical as he appears to be. Unlike him, we do believe in God. Unlike him, we do know and follow Jesus Christ And unlike him, we look for the coming of God’s reign.
When I first read this passage, thinking about what I might say, I thought it might be possible to redeem Qoheleth.
If it were possible to take one half, the positive half, of his list of opposites, and say here is the world which we are hoping for. Except as we have seen, we can’t do that. The list in places is just too ambiguous. And it’s not arranged to help us read it like that:
A time to kill and a time to heal
A time to love and a time to hate.
We can’t place all the elements on one side in the positive balance, and all the elements on the other side in the negative balance. That really isn’t how Qoholeth sees things. He appears not much to care whether it is a time for war or a time for peace, it is all much the same to him. And that is the difference between us! There are parts of what he says that we do recognise as God’s intention, because they are what God has shown us in Jesus Christ. They are what is is promised to us in the kingdom which Jesus is establishing. That kingdom will be a time for healing, building up, laughter, dancing, embracing, loving, and most of all a time for peace. Because we believe in and hope for the kingdom of God, all is not vanity. We live in the hope that everything in our lives do not cancel each other out and leave nothing.
Rather we hope that we, and those who made sacrifices for us will be swept up into that kingdom. Which makes this a time to speak rather than a time for silence.
A Time for War and a Time for Peace by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0