Ecclesiastes on How to Live*
Ecclesiastes is one of the Old Testament’s five wisdom books. It has been said that the Psalms teach us how to worship; Proverbs, how to behave; Job, how to suffer; Song of Solomon, how to love; and Ecclesiastes, how to live. How? With realism and reverence, with humility and restraint, coolly and contentedly, in wisdom and in joy.
People who may not have read beyond chapter 3 might think of Ecclesiastes as voicing nothing more than bafflement and gloom at the way everything is. But 2:26 already goes beyond this: “to the one who pleases him God has given . . . joy” (ESV, used throughout). In Ecclesiastes, joy is as central a theme, and as big and graciously bestowed a blessing, as it is in, say, Philippians.
Ecclesiastes is a flowing meditation on the business of living. It has two halves. The first half of Ecclesiastes, chapters 1–6, is in effect a downhill slide “under the sun” into what we may call the darkness of vanity. The natural order, wisdom in itself, uninhibited self-indulgence, sheer hard work, money-making, public service, the judicial system, and pretentious religiosity—are all canvassed to find what meaning, purpose, and personal fulfillment they yield. The reason for enquiring is given: Deep down in every human heart, God has put “eternity” (3:11)—a desire to know, as God knows, how everything fits in with everything else to produce lasting value, glory, and satisfaction. But the inquiry fails: It leaves behind only the frustration of having gotten nowhere. The implication? This is not the way to proceed.
The second half, chapters 7–12, is somewhat discursive—we might even say meandering. It labors to show that despite everything, the pursuit and practice of modest, quiet, industrious wisdom is abundantly worthwhile and cannot be embarked on too early in life. After comparing old age to a house falling to pieces (12:1–7), the writer works up to a solemn conclusion: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13–14).
That last phrase is elusive; duty may be its focus, or the phrase could be carrying the thought “the completeness of the human person,” which the Good News Bible has neatly rendered: “Fear God and keep his commands, because this is all that man was created for. God is going to judge everything we do” (12:13–14).
How then should we finally formulate the theology of joy that runs through and undergirds the entire book? Christian rejoicing in Christ and in salvation, as the New Testament depicts, goes further. But in celebrating joy as God’s kindly gift, and in recognizing the potential for joy of everyday activities and relationships, Ecclesiastes lays the right foundation: “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his work. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God” (2:24); “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun” (9:9).
Being too proud to enjoy the enjoyable is a very ugly shortcoming, and one that calls for immediate correction. Yes, we look forward to the perfect joy to be experienced in the consummation of God’s kingdom in the future. But even now God grants joy to his children who recognize God’s gift in simple things in this life. May we live with realism and reverence, with humility and restraint, coolly and contentedly, in wisdom and in joy. All for the glory of God.
* Adapted from J.I.Packer on Ecclesiastes.
This Week’s Bible Reading Schedule:
|Monday: Ecclesiastes 11||☐||Thursday: Psalms 91||☐|
|Tuesday: Ecclesiastes 12||☐||Friday: Psalms 92||☐|
|Wednesday: Psalms 90||☐||Saturday: Psalms 93||☐|
Bible Column & Reading Plan by Rev. Chang Soo Lee
Mississauga Camps Lead Pastor