Ecclesiastes and Joy 

"Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher;
"Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."

The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes is not high on most believers' "favorite books" list. From the start it tells of vanities, of worthlessness and meaninglessness. It's confusing, unexpected to find such a message of emptiness in the middle of the Bible. One common interpretation says that it is devoted to depicting life without God. There is much that is true in that view; yet there is a dangerous, life-robbing misconception in it. 

The book was written by Solomon in the world-renowned peak of his wealth, fame, and wisdom, when he "had it all." He had also tried it all.
"Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. 
 I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure,  
 For my heart rejoiced in all my labor;  
And this was my reward from all my labor.  
Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done  
 And on the labor in which I had toiled;  
And indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. 
There was no profit under the sun."
(Eccles. 2:10,11)
Solomon draws similar conclusions about seeking fame, money, and wisdom; it is grasping for the wind. So there has grown up a pietistic explanation that concludes from this, there is no real pleasure, nothing of real worth in the world for us except to know God and walk in relationship with him. 
Which is largely true, and as I said, desperately wrong; for it overlooks the gifts God gives in love to us along the way. This morning I can look out my back porch and see the abundant green of sweetgum, Bradford pear, and pine trees, and in the neighbor's yard behind them, a surprising splash of pink and white blossoms on another tree I cannot name. It's just beautiful, worthy of long moments to take it in; which I have enjoyed. 
Solomon himself said: 
"Here is what I have seen: It is good and fitting for one to eat and drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labor in which he toils under the sun all the days of his life which God gives him; for it is his heritage. As for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, and given him power to eat of it, to receive his heritage and rejoice in his labor—this is the gift of God. For he will not dwell unduly on the days of his life, because God keeps him busy with the joy of his heart." 
He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end. I know that nothing is better for them than to rejoice, and to do good in their lives, and also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor—it is the gift of God. 
This is not pessimistic joylessness; neither is it an other-worldly exclusive attention to "spiritual matters." It's about enjoying life the usual way. The same shows up in sprinkles all over the book. What then of the pronouncement of "vanity of vanities?" 
There's a clue in the most famous passage in the book, which some of my generation may recognize from the Byrds' hit song, not realizing it is straight out of Scripture: 

To everything there is a season,
      A time for every purpose under heaven:
       A time to be born,
And a time to die;
      A time to plant,
And a time to pluck what is planted;
       A time to kill,
And a time to heal;
      A time to break down,
And a time to build up;
       A time to weep,
And a time to laugh;
      A time to mourn,
And a time to dance;
     A time to cast away stones,
And a time to gather stones;
      A time to embrace,
And a time to refrain from embracing;
       A time to gain,
And a time to lose;
      A time to keep,
And a time to throw away;
       A time to tear,
And a time to sew;
      A time to keep silence,
And a time to speak;
       A time to love,
And a time to hate;
      A time of war,
And a time of peace. 
There is a time for all kinds of joy: birth, peace, dancing, embracing. There is nothing wrong with taking them for what they are worth. But their time does not last; there is a rhythm to life that alternates loss and pain among the times of pleasant refreshment. Not only is there a time, there is a purpose for these things. Ecclesiastes recognizes that pleasures can be prostituted; that money, for example (there are others), can be a false and deceptive goal, a tool of rivalry rather than of contentment, a burden rather than a release.  
There is one enduring, life-giving, faithful and permanent Source of good, God himself. Everything else comes as it comes. Solomon is telling us to enjoy it but not to expect of it more than it can provide. Ecclesiastes is a book about enjoying life. It's about enjoying good food, good companionship, fruitful work, growing in knowledge and wisdom. It's about enjoying it more for not expecting more from them than the temporary, temporal value than they can offer. It's about enjoying the gifts of God on earth.  
It's also about eternity in our hearts, as quoted above. It's about never forgetting 
  the conclusion of the whole matter: 
Fear God and keep His commandments,  
For this is man’s all.  
For God will bring every work into judgment,  
Including every secret thing,  
Whether good or evil. 
(Verse quotations from the New King James Version) 

Posted: Sun - July 30, 2006 at 08:59 AM           |

© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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