All the shine of a thousand spotlights,
All the stars we steal from the night sky,
Will never be enough,
Never be enough.
Towers of gold are still too little;
These hands could hold the world but it’ll
Never be enough,
Never be enough.
—Loren Allred, The Greatest Showman
The world is too small to fill your heart. The best things that time can give you will leave unfathomed depths in your soul. It is a beautiful truth that you were made for eternity.
This is the perspective of “the Preacher” in Ecclesiastes, who spoke these famous words: “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” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
In a nutshell, I think the Preacher is saying this: The longing we each possess for a coherence to our own story — and, indeed, the story of the world — has been graciously gifted to us by God. And part of the grace is the surprise that this longing takes the form of a pained looking, a perplexed pondering, as we try to — and then realize we cannot — join up all the dots of our own and the world’s stories. We long for more than we have, we long for what is transient to last, and we long for people and relationships that are temporal to abide forever.
This God-given desire for an uninterrupted, big-picture understanding of everything rubs against the piecemeal, fragmented nature of our grasp on reality. We have a sense that we were made for a grander and more perfect story than the one being played out in our brutal experience of the world.
Time Meets Eternity
This interpretation of Ecclesiastes 3:11 emerges when we attend to the verse’s parts, reading them in the context of the chapter in which they are embedded. Observe how the poetic phrase about eternity in the middle is bracketed on either side by references to time: the beauty of things in their right time and the language of beginning and end.
The juxtaposition of time and eternity is more than a difference; it is a tension, as seen in the words “yet so that he cannot.” There is something about the interplay of temporal affairs and eternity that creates a jagged edge in human experience.
This tension is borne out when we consider the whole chapter. Ecclesiastes 3 is famous for the lyrical tilt of its poetry: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die” (verses 1–2). There is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh” (verse 4). There is “a time to love, and a time to hate” (verse 8).
We’re meant to realize that there is no predictability to the arrival of these events, and often, their presence takes us by surprise. We live with life’s ugliness and pain as much as its beauty and delight, and we are not in charge of when, where, and to what extent each enters our lives.
These seasons are also nearly all relational. They involve the people whom we love and lose, those whom we wrong and forgive, our companions and our enemies. The ebb and flow of our lives is largely taken up with piloting the different seasons of these relationships and the effects they have on us.
The point about time is this: we cannot control it. We cannot control events, and we cannot control relationships. The rest of Ecclesiastes 3 makes clear that we also cannot control ultimate outcomes: “Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness” (verse 16).
This is why we “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (verse 11). We simply do not know the end from the beginning of anything. We are bit-part players on the sprawling epic of world history, stumbling over our own lines, never mind understanding how this scene on Tuesday morning coheres with a chapter three years ago or the episode that will take place twelve years from now.
The absence of that big picture — particularly if there is injustice and wickedness to be endured or suffering to be stewarded in the meantime — can be one of the most bewildering features of our pilgrimage.
Every Heart a Stable
But now observe the rose among the thorns, the middle of verse 11: “[God] has put eternity into man’s heart.” The idea that God has placed something more than this world (eternity) inside an object in this world (man’s heart) is amazing and powerfully poetic. In The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis has Tirian, the last king of Narnia, and his party enter a stable, which is the threshold of death itself. On entering, they discover that all is not as it seems.
“It seems, then,” said Tirian, smiling to himself, “that the Stable seen from within and the Stable seen from without are two different places.”
“Yes,” said the Lord Digory. “Its inside is bigger than its outside.”
“Yes,” said Queen Lucy. “In our world too, a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.” (744)
That something finite could hold something infinite — this is in keeping with who God is and what he gives. From the fullness of his own immensity, he sought to bestow vastness on small creatures. He intended an experience of infinite bliss to be savored by finite beings. Eternal life for humankind, in the unending Sabbath-rest of the Creator God, was possible from the very beginning of creation.
Our first parents squandered it in an attempted coup, their vandalism of shalom (Genesis 3:22). Yet its loss does not mean its impossibility; rather, it means that we, in our fallen human nature, experience the echoes of who and what we were made to be. This capacity for eternity and its infinite depths keeps sounding in our hearts, in both major and minor keys.
In minor key, consider the horror of death. Eternity echoes in our grief. Why is it that we find the idea of the total and absolute nonbeing of our loved ones intolerable, such sorrow unbearable? Christian and non-Christian alike have a sense of, and a yearning for, the person’s existence to continue in some form, in some way, however vague and uncertain. This longing for uninterrupted and durable relationships, for reunion, for wholeness, for completeness and perfection — ultimately, for a share in the life of God — is what it feels like for God to set eternity in our hearts.
God has placed it there as an invitation to humility. As John Jarick puts it, “The human being . . . wants to pass beyond his fragmentary knowledge and discern the fuller meaning of the whole pattern — but the Creator will not let the creature be his equal” (quoted in Tremper Longman, Ecclesiastes, 121). Instead of trying to rise above our station and know what only God can know (the beginning and the end), Ecclesiastes 3:11 reminds us that God is not bound by the changing times in the ways that we are.
The times happen to us, but God happens to the times. He sees and knows what we cannot; he is the one in charge of the ultimate coherence of all things. It is part of the Preacher’s invitation, as Derek Kidner comments, “to see perpetual change not as something unsettling but as an unfolding pattern, scintillating and God-given. The trouble for us is not that life refuses to keep still, but that we see only a fraction of its movement and of its subtle, intricate design” (Message of Ecclesiastes, 38–39).
No one would open The Lord of the Rings to a random page two-thirds of the way through and conclude, after a few minutes of reading, that it had no point, that it was incoherent. Why do we feel so confident interpreting our own times in this way, when in fact the story is still being written by the divine Author?
We are actors, not the Playwright. We are not his equal.
The eternity in our hearts breaks through in other ways. There is a major key as well. The world we recognize so well in Ecclesiastes 3:16 is followed by a depiction of the world we long for so passionately: “I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work” (verse 17).
Judgment is a divine promise. All the events of human history that have slipped through the hourglass of time into the past might be lost to us, but they are never lost to God. One day he will pull the past into his present to bring it to account. Every sorrow, every injustice, every unanswered grievance will have its day in court.
Even more, such longing for the beauty of coherence, or for the rightness of justice exactly meted out for wickedness, is a pointer to the eternal perfection of life with God. Lewis expresses this powerfully:
If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. (Mere Christianity, 136–37)
Perhaps his most beautiful expression of this idea comes from “The Weight of Glory,” where he manages the rare feat of analyzing an emotion (nostalgia) in a way that makes the emotion more beautiful after the analysis than it was before. He describes nostalgia as the bittersweet, special emotion of longing, observing that only the emotionally immature believe that what they are longing for is actually what they are longing for.
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; for it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things — the beauty, the memory of our own past — are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a far country we have not yet visited. (30–31)
Is it not true that we often treat the best and most beautiful things we have as ends in themselves? In fact, they are messengers, servants of eternity in time-bound form, sent to us from God with an invitation to see through them to the One who gave them and who made us for him. They are images, shadows, and dreams. They are too small to satisfy us. They are passing. We were made for eternity.