He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, He has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
A few years ago, CNN published a list of quotes that were attributed to scripture but not actually found anywhere in the Bible. Here are a few:
“God works in mysterious ways.”
“Cleanliness is next to godliness.”
And my children’s personal favorite, “God helps those who help themselves.” Seriously.
But no matter how much authority with which they are spoken, they do not carry the authority of the Word of God because they are simply Bible-sounding sound bites created by slightly more creative versions of you and me.
One, though, stood out to me because I’ve heard it so, so many times and, in all honesty, I assumed it was biblical. It’s been quoted throughout generations of cancer survivors and presidents, and attributed to King Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes, the subject of this week’s sermon.
“This too shall pass.”
After listening to Pete’s message Sunday and reading the passages Solomon wrote, such as, “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind,” and, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God,” it sure sounded like something King Solomon might have said, so I did a little digging. The quote, in fact, comes from a Sufi parable that goes like this:
One day a king decided to humble Benaiah Ben Yehoyada, his most trusted minister. He said to him, “Benaiah, there is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me. I wish to wear it for Sukkot, which gives you six months to find it.”
“If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty,” replied Benaiah, “I will find it and bring it to you, but what makes the ring so special?”
“It has magic powers,” answered the king. “If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy.” The king knew that no such ring existed in the world, but he wished to give his minister a little taste of humility. Spring passed and then summer, and still Benaiah had no idea where he could find the ring. On the night before Sukkot, he decided to take a walk in one of the poorest quarters of Jerusalem. He passed by a merchant who had begun to set out the day’s wares on a shabby carpet.
“Have you by any chance heard of a magic ring that makes the happy wearer forget his joy and the brokenhearted wearer forget his sorrows?” asked Benaiah. He watched the grandfather take a plain gold ring from his carpet and engrave something on it. When Benaiah read the words on the ring, his face broke out in a wide smile.
That night the entire city welcomed in the holiday of Sukkot with great festivity. “Well, my friend,” said the king, “Have you found what I sent you after?” All the ministers laughed and the king himself smiled.
To everyone’s surprise, Benaiah held up a small gold ring and declared, “Here it is, your majesty!” As soon as the king read the inscription, the smile vanished from his face. The jeweler had written three Hebrew letters on the gold band: gimel, zayin, yud, which began the words “Gam zeh ya’avor”—“This too shall pass.” At that moment the king realized that all his wisdom and fabulous wealth and tremendous power were but fleeting things, for one day he would be nothing but dust.
“This too shall pass” is not a slogan of great optimism like it’s often used; it’s actually one of resignation. Both good and bad, all shall pass away.
Interesting. Although not King Solomon’s words, the fable demonstrates a similar state of mind. When Solomon uses the word vanity in the book of Ecclesiastes, it is not translated to mean a kind of narcissism like counting wrinkles in the bathroom mirror (Who does that?). Here, according to Bible scholars, it means, “vapor" and conjures up a picture of something fleeting, ephemeral, and elusive. Solomon was feeling just that. Given all the wisdom, riches, and pleasures to do as he pleased, he found none satisfying to his thirsty soul and realized they were but vapors. Good circumstances or bad, they were all passing away.
The more years that pass between my birth and present day—which is a long way of saying, “as I age”—I understand more about what he’s writing. I’ve been told countless times, “You’re either in the middle of a trial, just come through one, or about to begin one.” I often wonder who invites those people to my parties. But they’re right. The Christian life is not for the faint of heart—and looking at circumstances alone—joy and pain seem fairly equally matched in most of our lives.
Yet reading Solomon’s words, he saw beyond his present circumstances. He was not resigned without hope. Solomon knew, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, He has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Eccl 3:11). He knew everything came from a hand greater and more powerful than anything on earth, and it was in that hand that he ultimately found his hope—his chief end. “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Eccl 12:13). It was as if, after all his vexing, he simply bowed his knee in humility and heeded an exhortation the Apostle Paul would make centuries later to his brothers and sisters in Corinth to “fix his eyes not on what is seen but which is unseen for that which is seen in passing away, but that which is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor 4:18).
Oh, that this would be our posture as summer passes away and a new season begins—"The Lord is my portion, says my soul, therefore I will hope in Him" (Lam 3:24).