Lessons for life from Ecclesiastes: a time to laugh and a time to weep
Many of the statements in the Bible are very useful to our everyday life today! The first seven verses of chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes are no exception. In this Old Testament book, the writer Solomon describes life as he experienced it and there are many gems to be explored. His statement about life and that there is a time for everything, is just one of them. Anyone who has been around for some time can testify to that.
A time to weep and a time to laugh tell us much about life. Life is full of challenges and no-one can go through life without experiencing events that will bring tears of sadness and others that will bring smiles and laughter. The popular song says “everybody hurts some time” and that is undoubtedly true. At the same time there are events that bring a smile or even laughter to lives.
It is in interesting that the Bible mentions more examples of weeping than it does laughing. At the same time it often refers to people being merry and that would certainly imply laughing. What the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us, is that there are times to weep and times to laugh and it is interesting to spend some time thinking about that.
The first question that we need to ask and answer is “why is it okay to cry and laugh?” Then we need to ask the question “when is it not appropriate to cry or laugh? Let me suggest that it is how God created us, with feelings and ways to express those feelings. Let’s use the example of a baby. Here is human behaviour in its purest form. It has been said that no-one is born with the ability or need to hate others or to be greedy and horrible. These are rather learned behaviour patterns. But to laugh, smile and cry comes naturally with life itself. You don’t have to teach it to a child. Secondly, for a baby it is a means of communication. A smile says all is well, while crying says something is wrong. Mothers just know this instinctively in their hearts and minds.
But then, in Adam’s world, we humans begin to mess things up. We begin to impose our human behaviour patterns on the child by communicating when it is okay to cry or laugh. So we teach the young child when we feel it is appropriate to laugh and to cry and when it is not. The question I am posing today comes from Solomon’s statement that there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh”. “When is that time?” It suggests that some times are inappropriate. The text says that there is a time for us to behave in the way that is right. Some of the other statements are quite difficult to relate to. “A time to lose and a time to gain” is an interesting one. “A time of war and a time of peace” is another one and we also need to look at them carefully in the light of other Biblical teaching.
But today I want to suggest that we try to free ourselves from some of the human teaching that often have serious implications to our happiness and well being. It is okay to cry and it is okay to laugh, if only we find the right time.
When looking at Biblical examples of laughter, we often see it as a negative thing. Jesus was mocked with laughter, literally “scornfully laughed at”, when he said that the ruler’s daughter was asleep and not dead (Mt. 9:24). Abraham and Sarah laughed when they were told that they would have a son in their old age (Gen. 17:7; 18:12). It is interesting that Isaac’s name means “he laughs”. Sarah spoke of the laughter that God had brought to her and that others would laugh with her (Gen.21:6). James suggests that our laughter be turned to mourning and our joy to gloom when we come to God in repentance (James 4:9). The King at the banquet when Queen Vashti was called on to come and parade her beauty, had been “making merry” (Esther 1:10). So banquets and festivals were associated with laughter and entertainment. The rich fool looked forward to his retirement as a time of “take thy ease, eat drink and be merry”. The trouble is that he had not provided for eternity (Luke 12:20) Proverbs teach that: “a merry heart makes a cheerful countenance” (Prov.15:13). Prov. 17:22 tells us that “a merry heart does good like medicine, but a broken spirit dries out the bones”. Making merry is often associated with drinking wine as in Ecclesiastes 10:17; 19, “A feast is made for laughter and wine makes merry; but money answers everything”. Laughing at the expense of someone else is definitely a negative use of this behaviour. At the same time everyone can testify that a good laugh is indeed good for a person’s wellbeing.
In contrast to laughing, there are many examples of weeping in the Bible.
The baby Moses cries in his basket when left there by his mother who was hoping to save him from the death threatened by the Egyptian Pharaoh (Ex. 2:6). It was natural for Moses to be crying, probably his mother had also been crying but for different reasons. Seeing the Hebrew innocent young babies killed on instruction from Pharaoh she would undoubtedly have wept. But babies cry when they are scared and Moses had every reason to be scared and perhaps his mother depended on it. Mothers know instinctively when a baby is in need and listen for a message, often sent in tears. That is how babies communicate; smiles and tears.
Delilah and Samson is an example of inappropriate use of crying. Here Delilah manipulates Samson with her tears, something that little children learn as they live in Adam’s world. Not a positive time to cry and certainly not a skill to encourage by parents: “My brother pushed me!” and lots of wailing. The soccer players have learned this way of manipulating the ref. We refer to these as crocodile tears”.
But perhaps the most graphic example of weeping comes from Jesus as he looks, one final time, at Jerusalem and sees the place that it has become, and in fact has always been - a place where God’s prophets have been rejected and put to death. It is interesting that Jesus wept for others and not for himself (Luke 19:41). As Peter follows Jesus to the High Peist’s courtyard, he denies Jesus three times. Luke records that as Jesus looks at him “Peter weeps bitterly” (Luke 22:62).
It is the terrible vision that Ezekiel is shown that should lead us to think about our attitude towards sin and the need to shed some tears for what the world of today is. Not much has changed since the time of Ezekiel. Then God sends Ezekiel a vision to remind the people of his time that they need to take sin seriously. A man with a pen marks the forehead of all those who weep for the sin of their time. Then the rest are put to death because they did not care (Ez.9:1-5). There certainly is a time to laugh, but life eternal and sin is no laughing matter and what we do today will determine what will happen today and in eternity. So yes, there is a time to laugh and a time to weep and it is important to know when it is appropriate.
We need to realise that God has given us the ability to laugh and cry. Let’s accept is as a part of our nature that we are created with. Be careful, however, how we use tears and laughter. Not as a weapon to manipulate others but certainly as a means to release the feelings of hurt and despair that sometimes seem to overpower us. It’s good to cry when you are sad or hurt. But also know that a smile and laughter can have healing power for the one giving it and the one receiving it. The inappropriate use of either is not natural, but can be negative learned behaviour that can be corrected.
So there is a time to weep and a time to laugh. May God help us to know when each is appropriate! If you need to cry for the sin in your life, then do as James suggests and don’t be afraid to shed some tears of repentance and make things right with God. “... mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom ”. (James 1:9 NKJV) God offers forgiveness and peace to the person who comes to him, but you have to come home.
In the beautiful parable of the son who was lost and then found I can imagine the Father shedding a few tears as his prodigal son came home. Then enjoying a time of celebration and laughter as they feasted (Luke 15:23). There is a time to weep and a time to laugh! All we need to do is find the right time and place!
Scriptures taken from the New King James Version. Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.