Ecclesiastes is a controversial book – is it a positive affirmation of the joy of life or a deeply pessimistic view of the world? Either way, it resonates deeply with the existential struggles of people today. The book takes us on a roller-coaster ride as the main character sets out to explore the meaning of life. We too are to wrestle actively with the difficult questions and real issues of life.
Throughout the Quester’s journey, there is a constant tension between the 'utterly enigmatic' nature of life as he discovers it under the sun and the call to 'seize the day', eating and drinking and enjoying what God has given to us. These can be referred to as the carpe diem passages (which increase in emphasis throughout the book’s journey), such as the following:
Ecclesiastes 5:18-20. Even so, I have noticed one thing, at least, that is good. It is good for people to eat, drink, and enjoy their work under the sun during the short life God has given them, and to accept their lot in life. And it is a good thing to receive wealth from God and the good health to enjoy it. To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life—this is indeed a gift from God. God keeps such people so busy enjoying life that they take no time to brood over the past. NLT
Here is a transforming vision of eating and drinking, of enjoying one's work and one’s wealth, and of sustaining joy. This is to be seen as a gift from God (see also 2:24-26; 9:7-10 and how the apostle Paul picks this theme in Colossians 3:17) who created all things for his pleasure (Revelation 4:11). As Irenaeus once said, “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” This involves joy even in the midst of the contradictions and enigmas we experience in life (see 1 Peter 1:8).
All of this is a mystery that needs to be held in tension, being difficult to resolve. Like chasing the wind, we know that the wind is real but it is impossible to grasp. So life has meaning but it can be hard to get a handle on. The resolution to the paradox is found in "the fear of God" which enables one to rejoice and apply oneself positively to life in the midst of all that one does not understand, including especially death. It is a call to rejoice and remember our Creator by enjoying his good gifts and obeying his laws (see 11:7-12:7). We can wrestle with reality at its darkest points and still testify to the joy of God. Like the Quester, we can affirm joy over despair while still struggling with how to relate the two. As Craig Bartholomew writes, “His autonomous epistemology takes him toward skepticism but his Jewish background and faith provide him with an undeniable shalomic perspective on life” (p.355). Enigma remains but it is enveloped with meaning. It’s a meaning that comes from refusing to forget the God who created everything. Despite the difficulties, paradoxes, unanswered questions and mysteries of life, life can be lived on a firm foundation of faith and trust.
Here’s the narrator’s conclusion:
Ecclesiastes 12:8-14. Keep this in mind: The Teacher was considered wise, and he taught the people everything he knew. He listened carefully to many proverbs, studying and classifying them. The Teacher sought to find just the right words to express truths clearly. The words of the wise are like cattle prods — painful but helpful. Their collected sayings are like a nail-studded stick with which a shepherd drives the sheep. But, my child, let me give you some further advice: Be careful, for writing books is endless, and much study wears you out. That’s the whole story. Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad. NLT
Anything we pursue on this earth in order to find meaning and satisfaction from tends to disappoint, as least in the long run. But when we discover a peace and a joy in a connection with the God who transcends yet pervades this world, we are able to express and experience that joy even in the daily aspects and routines of our life. We live more content, we are more attentive to all that is talking place around us, and we understand that everything belongs and everything is a gift.
Ultimately, it is Jesus who redeems us from the futility of life and ushers in the great feast of the kingdom of God. Yes, all of creation continues to groan but with a hope that death is not the end and that the story of redemption is yet to be finished. In the meantime, like Jesus, we can celebrate the life that God has given us and feast in joy, living fully present in each moment of our day. After all, Jesus literally ate his way through the Gospels, bringing joy and hope to whoever he encountered along the way.
May we do the same.