Time on Our Hands: Jonathan Edwards on the Preciousness of Time

Editor's note: In a previous post, Megan Taylor introduced us to the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards.  She directed us to consider the Small Pox vaccination which ended his life. In this post. Megan once again enlists the great theologian, this time as a guide for us in our use of time during the Covid-19 crisis.

The children of early New England learned their ABC’s not through a whimsical song, but through serious biblical principles illustrated in their primers. The letter “T” was memorably accompanied by a woodcut of the Grim Reaper holding up an hourglass with the rhyme, “Time cuts down all, both great and small.” You can imagine such instruction would have made a deep impact on the little Puritans, perhaps even on a young Jonathan Edwards, who would later have much to say on the subject of time.

Since executive stay-at-home orders have been issued throughout the country due to the coronavirus pandemic, there has been much talk of time and its use. Some have found themselves with too much time on their hands. Others thought they had more time to spend with loved ones. Many simply want this time to pass.

At just nineteen years old, Edwards set a high standard for time management as he penned in his diary: “Resolved, never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can.”[1] His efforts bore fruit in his disciplined lifestyle. It was reported that Edwards spent thirteen hours a day in his office, carefully poring over Scripture, writing sermons, and praying. When he was not deep in thought or study, he was spending time with his wife and eleven children and opening his home to guests. One can only imagine what great losses to theology there would have been if Edwards was the type to hit the snooze button.

To spur his congregation to consider the value of time, Edwards wrote two compelling sermons, one called, “The Preciousness of Time, and the Importance of Redeeming it,” and the other, “Procrastination, or, The Sin and Folly of Depending on Future Time.” Edwards understood that how we choose to spend our time reflects our desires and directs our worship, so he mourned when time was undervalued. “How little is the preciousness of time considered,” he lamented. “There is nothing more precious, and yet nothing of which men are more prodigal.”[2]

If Edwards observed the wastefulness of time in his own day, how much more so do we have reason to mourn the disrespect of time now? The convenience of our culture can become a curse. We have been given an excess of time and freedom which we could use to build others up, but we have instead created instruments for indulgence and distraction. We view time as our right, and find it inconvenient when our time is encroached upon, or when we cannot use it how we would like. Somewhere along the way, we have lost a good theology of time.

Though God is sovereign, He still works through the secondary means of our good works by which we can hasten the day of the Lord. Christians often theorize about the Great Commission and theologize our callings, but we fail to take action as participants in God’s plan. His command is for all Christians, in all vocations, until all the work is complete. There is no more worthy endeavor we can pursue with our time.

Edwards reminds us that time is the scarcest of commodities. We cannot store away seconds or mass produce minutes. Each day offers us a chance to redeem our time for the kingdom. If we squander that opportunity, we will not get a second chance. Edwards observes that, “If a man should lose the whole of his worldly substance, and become a bankrupt, it is possible that his loss may be made up…..But when the time of life is gone, it is impossible that we should ever obtain another such time.”[3] Like the great Ozymandias, time etches us away until we are like the very sand that slips through the hourglass.

When it comes to overhauling our use of time, Edwards admonishes that we should, “talk not of more convenient seasons.”[4] The season we find ourselves in today is inconvenient. Our routines are disrupted. Our plans have been waylaid. We may want to wait until life goes back to normal to make a change. We might be tempted to believe our circumstances free us from accountability. However, one day we will be held accountable for our use of time, as a lender calls into account a borrower.

Though it is right to be aware of how fleeting time is, we must also remember that our everlasting God is above time and ordaining each of our days. May we in turn use our moments to seek Him and pray with the wisdom of Moses that He would “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”

Megan K. Taylor earned her MA in Theological Studies from Westminster Theological Seminary. She and her husband, Joel, live in Sanford, Fl where she works for Ligonier Ministries.

Both of Edwards’s discourses concerning the preciousness of time can be accessed online:

[1] “The Resolutions of Jonathan Edwards.” Desiring God, May 27, 2020. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-resolutions-of-jonathan-edwards.

[2]Jonathan Edwards et al., The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2005). 235.

[3] Ibid. 234.

[4] Ibid. 236.


Megan Taylor