A Time to Laugh: Ecclesiastes and Joy
"Well, I think Ecclesiastes is just human wisdom, the best people can find 'under the sun.' It's just man's ideas, not God's, you know, what with its hedonism and all, telling us to 'eat, drink and be merry.' It is a wisdom beneath Christian dignity."
The above is what many sadly think of the amazing biblical book titled Ecclesiastes. Notes in the old Scofield Bible promote this misguided view. C.I. Scofield's understanding of the phrase "under the sun" is way off base. It's simply a phrase for location, i.e., "under the sun" means "on the earth." The phrase carries no moral or theological overtones.
We looked at the "meaningless" theme in the last post and concluded that Qoheleth was not being pessimistic, but realistic. In this post we tackle the "enjoyment" or the "eat, drink, and be merry" theme.
Consider these repetitive calls to enjoyment of life:
A person an do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work (2:24).
That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God (3:13).
Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot (5:18).
So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad (8:15).
Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun— all your meaningless days (9:7-9).
However many years a man may live, let him enjoy them all. ...Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth (11:8-9).
Unquestionably Qoheleth commends eating and drinking and finding joy in life. Yet, the question is: Does Ecclesiastes promote a hedonistic life? The answer is a resounding "No!"
Qoheleth probes the limits and bankruptcy of hedonism as he describes his "experiment" with unbridled pleasure in 2:1-11. Read the verses. Notice Qoheleth's summary comments: "I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure" and "Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun." His foray into hedonism was meaningless. So whatever the repetitive "enjoyment" theme is, it is not a call to hedonism. Hedonism is seeking pleasure as the highest or ultimate goal in life.
The enjoyment theme is a gift from God to help us on our journey in this meaningless existence. If you are tripping over the word "meaningless," please read the previous post. Qoheleth, the wisdom writer, commends finding deep joy in daily pleasures---eating and drinking at our meals, enjoying the pleasures of marriage (if we are married) or companionship with others if we're not. God made us to experience joy, and joy is a worthy experience, a wise experience in our otherwise wearying life.
Behind the wisdom writer's call to joy is a deep-seated belief in a theology of celebration. The God of Israel called his people to joy. God's people were to eat and drink and rejoice in his presence (when they brought tithes to the LORD). Even told to buy "fermented" or "strong drink." What?! Nehemiah told the people not to weep and mourn, but to eat and drink, "for the joy of the LORD is our strength". Jesus told stories of a joyful, party-throwing shepherd who found his lost sheep, and a celebrating woman who found her lost coin, and a village chief who as a father calls for a city-wide feast when his lost son came home. And there was "music and dancing" (Luke 15)!
We sorely need a theology of joy and celebration, especially because some in west Michigan define Christian holiness by what Christians can't do. Horse face holy ones presuming to speak for God wring every drop of joy out of anything and everything. For many, there is a religious knee-jerk response of guilt to every experience of joy. "There will be no joy without guilt in this house...in this church!" Years ago I got a call from a local Bible school telling me that their students could no longer attend our church because we held a square dance during the Fall season. Drabness and dullness are next to holiness. I don't know where these ideas crept into the faith, but they certainly did not come from the Bible or from Jesus.
I think Christian kill-joys perpetuate the ancient heresy of gnosticism. Gnosticism promoted the idea that the flesh is bad and the spirit is good. So anything that is bodily or "fleshly" enjoyable---eating good food and drinking good wine and celebrating good sex---has to be frowned upon; it's "carnal." Only prayer and Bible reading and being quiet are holy, and certainly abstaining from sex except to procreate is very holy . Yet, it was heretics who forbade those things according to the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 4:1-4.
Once again we discover Qoheleth to be very astute, giving us rock-solid wisdom. "The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one Shepherd" (12:11). Our party-loving, joy-bringing Shepherd.