For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
Is there any greater wisdom than to be able to read the times?
Success comes down to good timing. Whether to launch a product, run a campaign, fight a battle, or blow the whistle—it all comes down to judging the times and seasons for right action. This is the ancient wisdom attributed to King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes.
Solomon’s advice might sound like relativism or situational ethics. To say there is a time for every matter seems to argue, “It all depends.” Any act could be justified based on one’s interpretation of the situation without reference to steadfast, absolute norms or principles by which to judge right or wrong. If every moral choice depends on the situation, then situational ethics prevail. This could lead down one of those slippery slopes that land us in relativism, with no basis for determining whether one person’s decision is better than another’s.
There is indeed an element of situational ethics here, but Ecclesiastes is not making the case for relativism. The point is simply that there is a right time to keep silent and a right time to speak. That’s wisdom. It would be foolish to say (as in relativism) that it doesn’t matter.
But how do we know when to speak and when to remain silent? In a current example, when would have been the right time for someone at GM to speak up about the defective ignition switches that led to 13 (by the company's estimate) deaths? In the swirling uncertainty that must have surrounded the initial clues about a problem, this would have been a very difficult decision.
Ecclesiastes offers wisdom, however, about making that choice while avoiding relativism: the only way to make sense of the times is to place our decisions in the greater context of our relationship with God:
I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. (vv. 3:12-13)
In the face of a tough moral choice, the right question is: “How will this deed bear witness to the joy of doing the good work God has given me?” At times joy is found in silently persevering and working behind the scenes for the sake of God’s claim on our lives. At other times we must speak out, even though disruption and hardship may follow, in order to bear witness to the good that God desires for people.
“How will this deed bear witness to the larger story of God’s movement in and through our choices?” Even though the answer is not always an easy one, the question is always the right one. That is the timeless test of moral discernment for all times and seasons.
© Bruce D. Baker, 2014