I’ve been reading and studying Ecclesiastes with some men recently. They found it pretty depressing, but I was really encouraged. I’ve also been reading pretty much everything I can find at the Highlands Study Center and I think the things I’ve read there influenced my reading of Ecclesiastes.
It’s easy to see how “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” might get some people down. But I think it took a load of pressure off me. _All_ is vanity. Solomon took every conceivable approach and found them _all_ lacking. He sought wisdom, madness, and folly. All vanity. All his learning simply made things worse. He “enlarged [his] works” and built houses, planted vineyards, made gardens and parks, and possessed great wealth. All vanity. None of it was ultimately worth anything. Who knows if a man will even be able to leave a good inheritance to his children? Who knows if they will squander it or not? Wealth can be destroyed in an instant.
The conclusion I draw from this is that there is no point in wearing yourself out to make a great name for yourself on earth. That’s just chasing after the wind.
Our lives are brief. Our works are temporary. Our accomplishments are largely meaningless. We cannot understand all the works that God is doing in the world. It’s not about us; it’s about Him.
Life on earth is closely akin to a short trip. In the course of just a few years we travel from the cradle to the grave. We leave very little behind, and even the memory of us fades within a few years.
But Solomon does not stop there. He gives us instructions for how to live while we are on this trip: “Here is what I have seen to be good and fitting: to _eat_, to _drink_ and _enjoy oneself in all one’s labor_ in which he toils under the sun during the few years of life which God has given him; for _this is his reward_. … Go then, eat your bread in _happiness_ and drink your wine with a _cheerful heart_; for _God has already approved your works_. … _Enjoy life_ with the _woman whom you love_ all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for _this is your reward_ in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might”
The lesson I take away is: Recognize life for what it is – a brief journey, just a flame that flickers and goes out. And once you’ve recognized if for that, _enjoy the journey_. Who cares how much wealth you’ve accumulated? Who cares what your social status is? Who cares about your career? _None of these things matter_.
Enjoy life. Enjoy your life with the wife of your youth, the woman whom you love all the days of your life. Enjoy the work that God has given you. Work hard. Enjoy the fruits of your labor. Eat your bread and drink your wine with a cheerful heart.
And later Christ gives us additional instruction:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will put on. … [I]f God so clothes the grass of the field which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things … seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
This modifies the conclusion a little bit by adding to it. Recognize life is a brief journey, enjoy the journey for what it is, and _remember where you are heading_.
The recognition that God, our loving Father, is in complete control is essential for being able to enjoy life for what it is, rather than wearing ourselves out to get rich, chasing after the wind, and worrying about material things. The recognition that life is temporary is also essential for understanding that nothing we do _on earth_ is of much significance, so we can simply enjoy our families, our labor, and the fruit of our labor.
But the recognition that _something_ is eternal is also important, and is not really a part of the message of Ecclesiastes. Solomon stops with telling us to serve God because things will generally go better, because God will judge us, and because it’s just the right thing to do. Jesus tells us that it’s far more than that – our good works are actually _storing up treasure in heaven_ for us. Houses and lands and money will all be gone. But souls are eternal. The glory of God is eternal. These are things worth pursuing. It’s the goal of our journey.
As in everything, there are many ways to go wrong here. One of those ways is pride and greed. Who really cares if I am a programmer all the days of my life, a manager, a teacher, or a manufacturing plant worker? Does anyone really talk about the _accomplishments_ of dearly departed loved ones? It makes absolutely _no_ sense to sacrifice the enjoyment of life, or to disobey the responsibilities I have as a Christian, for the sake of prestige, pride, or money.
Another mistake would be hedonism. Solomon tried that, and he says it is folly. Jesus warned against it. Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die” is a shallow, empty philosophy. Life is not meaningless. Much of it is eternally significant.
Another way to go wrong would be asceticism. Life is to be enjoyed. It is _God’s reward_ to us. My job is not _simply_ a means of supporting myself. It is a blessing from God, a gift to me. It’s something to be _enjoyed_. In 10 years, nobody will care about the programs I write today. But I should enjoy my work and get a sense of satisfaction I get from writing them anyway. There is nothing worldly or illicit or spiritually immature in enjoying life. Asceticism is not necessarily more godly. The Bible does have a lot of warnings against overindulgence, excessive levity, and so on. We are commanded to live soberly and righteously. But this is a warning against gluttony and hedonism, living life as though it is entirely meaningless and as though our journey has no purpose. It is not a warning against _enjoying_ the journey. God commanded _feasting_ in the Old Testament. He wanted Israel to enjoy His gifts and provision.
I am not sinning, or spiritually immature, if I spend my time working in my garden rather than reading my Bible. There is nothing wrong with spending my money to take my family to the zoo, instead of giving it all to the poor. Time spent with friends and family would not necessarily be better spent witnessing. God would not necessarily be more glorified if I became a missionary instead of a programmer. (Of course, we are remarkably apt at sinning, and there may well be times I should read my Bible instead of work in my garden, give money to the poor instead of spending it for my enjoyment, go witnessing, or become a missionary. But it’s not _automatically_ the case.)
I think it’s because I’ve been raised a Dispensationalist instead of a Postmillenialist, and have always been warned “we’re in the last minutes of the last hours of the last days”, but I’ve always tended a bit towards Gnosticism in this area. I’ve had a lingering feeling that, beyond the bare necessities, all my time and all my money ought to be spent “Doing the Lord’s work”. And of course, “the Lord’s work” meant only those spiritual (as opposed to physical) pursuits – Bible study, prayer, worship, giving, evangelism, that kind of stuff.
Contrast that with Biblical statements like “God gave wine to cheer the hearts of men”. I don’t drink for strictly cultural reasons (and don’t want to debate it, thank you), but verses like that are pretty incompatible with the “wretched urgency” I felt like I should feel. You can do some dispensational hand-waving and relegate those verses to the kingdom instead of the church age, but I don’t find that very convincing.
It’s probably true that most Christians, particularly in 21st century America, need to hear messages against worldliness and hedonism. Those messages may sound pretty ascetic and Spartan. And I have a lot of thoughts about wordliness and materialism. I think I could and should do without a _lot_ of stuff that I’ve got, and you likely should, too. I believe we are amusing ourselves to death, to borrow the title of a book. We could use some sermons on worldliness. There are a lot of texts to choose from: Matthew 6:19-22, 1 Corinthians 8, 1 Cor 15:31-34, 2 Cor 6:14-7:1, 2 Cor 9, Eph 5:1-5, 1 Thess 4:11-12, 1 Tim 6:5-12, James 2:1-9, 1 Peter 4:3-7 and 17, 1 John 2:15-16, and Rev 3:17-19.
But just like Galatians and James must be kept in the context of each other, we have to keep all these things in context of each other. Worldiness / sensuality / hedonism is an error, just as pride / greed is, just as asceticism is.
Life is fleeting. Recognize that it is just a journey. Remember the destination. And enjoy the trip.