Jonathan Edwards and the Preciousness of Time

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I spent some time yesterday afternoon reading Jonathan Edwards' sermon "The Preciousness of Time and the Importance of Redeeming It", from Ephesians 5:16. It was preached in December, 1734, but seems tremendously applicable to today. Here, I want to summarize some of Edwards' main points, and in one or two subsequent posts I'll address some side issues it brings up.

Edwards' text for the sermon is part of Ephesians 5:16, which in the translation he used says "redeeming the time" (the NIV has "make the most of every opportunity"). He begins by pointing out that we ought to set a high value on time, and be very careful not to lose or waste it, because it is very precious. His first section moves on to explain why time is precious.

Time is precious in part because our eternal destiny depends on how we use the time we have here. Typically, we value those things which are important for our prosperity and further our interests. Edwards argues that, therefore, we ought to highly value time, because our eternal welfare depends on how we use it. I think Edwards is hitting the nail on the head here: One reason we fail to value time, and place so much value on the things of the world and so little on eternal things, is because we see how our interests are tied up with things of this world, but tend to be oblivious to how our interests are connected with eternal realities. Time, though, is precious because by it we have the opportunity "of obtaining everlasting blessedness and glory."

It is also precious because it is short. Rare commodities are valuable, and so it is with time (see Job 9:25, 26; 16:22, and James 4:14). "It is but as a moment to eternity," Edwards writes.

Time ought to be valued also because we are uncertain that it will continue. We know it is short, but we don't know how short. Today may be our last. Edwards points out that if a man went on a voyage and knew his provisions would run out, he would be more careful to ration them so that they would not. We know, however, that our time will run out -- we just don't know how soon. So we must be careful with it, and value it while we have it.

Time is also precious because it cannot be recovered. We may have financial problems, even becoming bankrupt, and yet gain back more than we had before our financial problems began. But not so with time. Once it is gone, it is gone forever. We may greatly regret having let it pass without recognizing its value, but it will be gone forever. Once our lives are over, our eternal destiny is settled, and we cannot go back and have any more time with which to obtain salvation.

Edwards then moves on to reflect on time already passed. He writes

When God created you, and gave you reasonable souls, he made you for an endless duration. He gave you time here in order to a preparation for eternity, and your future eternity depends on the improvement of time...

He points out that all the time we have enjoyed so far has been precious. But have we not wasted many of these precious moments, days, and years?

What can you show of any improvement made, or good done, or benefit obtained, answerable to all this time which you have lived? When you look back, and search, do you not find this past time of your lives in great measure empty, having not been filled up to any good improvement?

He points out that there is much that can be done in a year, or even a day, if we use the time well. But have we not let many years and days go by without using them well? Edwards writes that for some, it would have been as well or better if they had simply been asleep or not yet born for all that time.

The next section deals with the preciousness of time as a rebuke for some. Edwards writes,

How little is the preciousness of time considered ... There is nothing more precious, and yet nothing of which men are more prodigal. Time is with many, as silver was in the days of Solomon, as the stones of the street, and nothing accounted of. They act as if ... they had a great deal more than they needed, and knew not what to do with it.

Honestly, how often do we feel bored or lost, uncertain what to do with our time? Perhaps we want some way to be entertained, or just to pass by the time until we get to the next activity we're looking forward to. We act as if we have more time than we want. Edwards adds:

Yet time is a thousand times more precious than money, and when it is gone, cannot be purchased for money.

Edwards says that several sorts of people are particularly rebuked by this doctrine:

  1. Those who spend a great part of their time in idleness -- those who spend their time doing nothing either for their own benefit or that of others. "[They] act as if it were rather their concern to contrive ways how to waste and consume it; as though time, instead of being precious, were rather a mere encumbrance to them." He mentions particularly those who spend much of their time at the tavern or in idle and unprofitable talk.
  2. Those who spend their time in wickedness. These not only spend their time to no good purpose, but "spend it to ill purposes". Not only do they lose their time, but they hurt both themselves and others by it. Time is given as an opportunity to escape eternal misery, and obtain salvation. But those who spend their time in wickedness use their time for exactly the opposite purpose: To increase their guilt. Edwards mentions those who spend much time in "reveling" (partying, I think), in unclean talk and practices, in setting bad examples, backbiting, quarreling, stirring up divisions and contention. He says, "It would have been well for some men, and well for their neighbors, if they had never done anything at all."
  3. Those who spend their time only in worldly pursuits, neglecting their souls. By this, Edwards means to point out that this world is passing away, so if we are entirely consumed with our jobs, families, and so on, while we are here, we are consumed only with temporary things. He writes, "They that improve time only for their benefit in time, lose it." That is, we can work hard for our benefit here -- but if that's all we do, the time we've spent doing so is as good as lost, because we will lose everything we labored for when we soon die.

He exhorts those who have been guilty in spending their time wrongly in one of these ways to consider: "You have spent a great part of your time, and a great part of your strength, in getting a little of the world: and how little good doth it afford you, now that you have gotten it! What happiness or satisfaction can you reap from it?" How does it help you in eternity? What good will it do for you when your time runs out?

Edwards then exhorts us to "improve time". He gives several points for our consideration:

  1. We are accountable to God for our time. Time is a "talent" given us by God (like in the parable of the talents), and we will one day give an account to God of how we have used the time he gave us. "Would you not behave otherwise than you do, if you considered with yourselves every morning, that you must give an account to God, how you have spent the day?" (See also Matt. 12:36).
  2. Consider how much time we have lost already. Now our opportunity is much shorter than it once was, and the time that is already past is in many ways worse to us than if it had not been, if we have not used it as God wanted us to. And we now have the "same work to do that you had at first, and that under great difficulties." No, not only that, Edwards says, but we have more work to do in undoing the wrongs we have already done. What does Edwards mean by "work", here? I think he means several things: Primarily, coming to Christ in repentance and faith and receiving salvation. But also, "work" in terms of sanctification, growth in holiness. Also, in many ways, the best of our time is already lost. "You who have lived in sin till past your youth, have lost the best part." (Edwards points out that this is no excuse to continue wasting time today. He says that the devil tells the young that they have plenty of time, so they can wait to seek salvation later in life. And he tells the old that is too late, their youth is gone, and so much time is lost, so they might as well give up. According to the devil, then, no time is good.)
  3. Consider how much time is valued by those who have little. The near approach of death makes men sensible of the worth of time; they would give much to have more, often.
  4. Consider how much those in hell must value time. They were lavish with their time while they lived, and set no real value upon it, but "how would they value the opportunity which you have, if they might but have it granted to them!" He doesn't mention it, but I think the story of the rich man and Lazarus applies here.

Edwards concludes with some advice on "the improvement of time".

  1. "Improve the present time without any delay". Don't wait for a more convenient time later, but use the time now while you have it. He gives the example of Psalm 119:60, "I made haste, and delayed not to keep thy commandments."
  2. Especially improve those parts of time which are most precious. All time is precious, but some especially so: "especially the time of public worship, which is the most precious part. Lose it not either in sleep, or in carelessness, inattention, and wandering imaginations." And don't waste the time when God is "striving" by his Spirit. Isaiah exhorts us (55:6) "Seek the Lord while he may be found, and to call upon him while he is near." 2 Cor. 6:2 says, "...now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation."
  3. Use your leisure time (from business) well. All have some such time, and in it, "a happy opportunity for the soul is afforded." Use it in such a manner that we will be able to give a good account of it to God.

Edwards closes by pointing out that, as in Revelation 10:5-6, soon there will be time no more.

I mentioned there are some side points I want to bring up in subsequent posts. One is the idea of self-examination, which Edwards uses as a tool in his sermon, and which is something I think tends to be neglected at present. Some people do quite a bit of it, but many people, including myself, err on the other side, I think, and tend to think of it as somewhat morbid and avoid it. Another of the points I want to spend some time on is the reality of death -- a topic we often avoid, I think. Part of what I want to deal with is this question: Edwards thought there was great benefit in considering the reality of death, the uncertainty of life, and looking closely at ourselves to see just how far short we fall. Was Edwards right?

UPDATE: The follow-up post on self-examination is now up..

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