‘A time to be born and a time to die…’ (3:2) is presumably a hard time for most of us to get wrong. All the others the preacher lists need a bit more attention if we’re going to get them right.
The first part of chapter 3 is the only chapter of Ecclesiastes which most people have heard, and it’s often asked for at funerals where people have a particular passage in mind at all. When it is, I always prefer to pair it with a gospel passage which has a bit more hope in it!
But as one part of a rounded view of wisdom, 3:1-8 are undoubtedly important. Part of what turns knowledge into wisdom is the insight into when each bit of knowledge is relevant. Part is the discerning of different opportunities and problems – and the particularly wise may be so alert to changing circumstance that they can seem to predict or even to change it.
Living with wisdom in a changing world needs a broad understanding, so that we have godly insight to draw on in each of the different circumstances we might face. No one way of speaking or acting will be quite right for all situations. Breaking down and building up use different skills; war and peace require different kinds of dedication and courage.
So the more we prepare ourselves for different situations, the more ready we will be for wise living. But we also need to be living attentively and prayerfully to the world around us, so that we can be ready to see when the times are changing – or perhaps when the moment is ripe for us to help the times to change.
The old advice to preachers – to prepare with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other – is perhaps not a bad bit of wisdom for all of us in seeking to apply wisdom to life. What do the times demand (I don’t mean the Murdoch press here)? What can we bring to the present moment from the wisdom God has given us?