The Good Life
The Good Life
People may not sing it much anymore, but the following Herb Magidson song was popular in its day:
You're gonna take that ocean trip, no matter, come what may;
You've got your reservations made, but you just can't get away.
Next year, for sure, you'll see the world, you'll really get around;
But how far can you travel when you're six feet under ground?
Then the refrain:
Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think!
Enjoy yourself, while you're still in the pink.
The years go by, as quickly as a wink,
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it's later than you think.
"Enjoy Yourself" was written in the 1930s, and popularized in the 1950s, but its perspective on life is as old as Ecclesiastes. Our time on earth is short, so we had better make the most of it, finding joy in its many pleasures.
Making the most of it
This may seem like a surprising perspective for the Preacher to take. From the opening words of Ecclesiastes, he has been telling us mostly about the troubles of life. Our existence under the sun is vanity and striving after the wind. Yet this is not the Preacher's only theme. He speaks to pleasure as well as to pain, especially in the so-called "enjoyment passages" of Ecclesiastes. At the end of chapter 2 he talked about eating and drinking (2:24-26). In the middle of chapter 3 he spoke about joyfully doing good as long as we live (3:12-13). In chapter 5 he explained how "good and fitting" it is for us to find enjoyment in our work, because this is our lot in life. Then in chapter 8 he went farther and commended joy as a lifestyle (8:15).
These passages pose a major challenge in interpreting the book of Ecclesiastes because they seem to contradict what the Preacher says about the frustration of life under the sun. For this reason, some commentators see them as ironic. When the Preacher tells us to enjoy life, he is speaking cynically or sarcastically. According to this interpretation, the Preacher's attitude is encapsulated in the old Latin expression carpe diem: "Seize the day!" Since life has nothing better to offer than pleasure, we might as well get as much of it as we can. "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die." This is the best that a man can get.
Some commentators also draw comparisons with similar passages in other ancient writings. By way of example, consider these words from The Epic of Gilgamesh, an Akkadian poem from the time of Abraham, or even earlier:
Gilgamesh, fill your belly—
Day and night make merry,
Let days be full of joy,
Dance and make music day and night.
And wear fresh clothes,
And wash your head and bathe.
Look at the child that is holding your hand,
And let your wife delight in your embrace.
These things alone are the concern of men.
The point is not that Ecclesiastes is based on Gilgamesh, as if this were a case of literary dependency, but that Qoheleth has the same attitude towards life. We find something similar in these writings from ancient Egypt: "Flow thy desire, so long as thou livest. Put myrrh on thine head, clothe thee in fine linen, and anoint thee …, and vex not thine heart—until that day of lamentation cometh to thee."
There are at least two good reasons why we should be careful not to minimize what the Preacher says about joy, but to take it seriously as part of the truth about life. First, the enjoyment passages give us a balanced perspective on life. It is true that Qoheleth has a lot to say about vanity and striving after wind. But it should not surprise us that he also has something to teach us about joy, because this is the way life really is. For all our difficulty and despair, there are also many things that we are able to enjoy. Life is bitter/sweet, and if we fail to perceive both of those tastes, we fail to experience life as it actually should be lived.
The Preacher saw life in its full complexity, and he wants us to see it, too. We have tried to give full weight to all of the struggles he had with life under the sun. But if we want to gain the man's wisdom, we need to see his optimism as well as his pessimism. The same Preacher who said "all is vanity!" also came to believe that there is joy to life, which is part of having a balanced view. According to Martin Luther, the Solomon of Ecclesiastes "is not urging a life of pleasure and luxury characteristic of those who do not sense this vanity, for that would be putting oil on fire; but he is speaking of godly men, who sense the vexation and troubles of the world. It is their downcast hearts that he wants to encourage."
Another reason why we need to hear the Preacher's call to joy is because all of the passages where he gives this call have God at their center. This immediately distinguishes Ecclesiastes from ancient writings like The Epic of Gilgamesh. Why should we enjoy eating and drinking and working? In chapter 2 it is because these activities come "from the hand of God" (2:24). In chapter 3 it is because these activities are "God's gift to man" (3:13). The same is true in chapter 5, which also says that God keeps us "occupied with joy" in our hearts (5:20). The Preacher may be frustrated with life in this fallen world, but he still acknowledges the gifts that come from the hand of God.
We see this perhaps most clearly in Ecclesiastes 9, where the Preacher tells us to enjoy bread and wine because "God has already approved what you do" (9:7). This is not a blanket endorsement of everything that people do, as if God would ever approve of wickedness. Nor is it a full statement of the doctrine of justification—that we are accepted by the righteousness of God. The Preacher is saying mainly that eating and drinking enjoy the blessing of God. Life's enjoyments are not guilty pleasures, but godly pleasures—or at least they ought to be. A merry heart has God's approval. It is part of his gracious will for our lives.
The pleasures of life
What kinds of pleasure has God given his people to enjoy? In his commentary Michael Eaton points out that the Preacher mentions at least three pleasures in particular: contentment, comfort, and companionship.
The Preacher begins with the basic pleasures of eating and drinking: "Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart" (9:7). The word "go" conveys a sense of urgency. This statement is not descriptive, but imperative. We are hereby commanded to eat our bread and drink our wine (yes, wine) with joyful hearts. It is not so much the eating and drinking that the Preacher is after, but the heartfelt joy. As we share table fellowship with one another—as we break fresh bread, sip fine wine, and taste all the other good food and drink that God provides—we are charged to receive those pleasures with God-centered joy in the heart.
The celebration continues in verse 8: "Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head." White garments were the "dress up clothes" of the ancient Near East. Many festive occasions were adorned with robes of white. They were worn by war heroes on victory parade, by slaves on the day they gained their freedom, and by priests on the high holy days of Israel (see 2 Chronicles 5:12). To put this into a contemporary context, the Preacher is telling us to put on tuxedos and evening gowns so that we can dance the night away.
He also tells us to wear sweet perfume. To anoint someone's head with oil (see Psalm 23:5) was to pour out something richly scented, like cologne—what the Bible also calls "the oil of gladness" (Psalm 45:7). This is an important part of getting ready for a celebration: not just looking good, but also smelling good, especially in a hot climate. The Preacher is telling us to prepare for a party.
He also invites us to "enjoy life with the wife whom you love" (9:9). Literally he says, "with the woman you love," but he is not just saying, "Love the one you're with." As Tremper Longman has argued persuasively in his commentary, the woman in view is understood to be the man's wife. The Preacher is commending the daily pleasures of marriage and family life.
Here it seems appropriate to give a word of practical exhortation to married couples. We could apply the principle of this verse to other relationships, of course. The love between man and wife is not the only pleasure we can experience in human friendship. But here the Bible gives a specific command to husbands, who need to pay attention to exactly what the Preacher says.
Husbands are called to enjoy their wives. This means spending time with her as a friend. In all the busy demands of life, do you set aside time to do things together that you both enjoy? It means prizing your wife as a lover. Do you speak to her with terms of affection? Do you get away—just the two of you—to fuel the fires of romantic love? T. M. Moore captures this romance well in his paraphrase of Ecclesiastes 9:9: "Give your love completely to the darling woman of your dreams." Enjoying your wife also means valuing her as a person. Do you listen carefully to what she says, without immediately pointing out where she's wrong or trying to solve problems that she's not even asking you to solve until she has been understood? These are only a few of the many ways that husbands are called to enjoy their wives.
At this point some husbands (and not a few wives) will be tempted to complain that their wives (or husbands) are not that easy to enjoy. The romance of marriage is long gone, and sometimes even the friendship seems to be over. If that is the case, then we need to notice exactly how the Preacher words this command: the wife that we are told to "enjoy" is also the wife that we are said to "love." Maybe your wife or your husband is hard to enjoy very much right now, but can you at least obey God's command to love? For husbands, this means loving their wives with the same costly, sacrificial love that Jesus demonstrated when he died for our sins on the cross (see Eph. 5:25-30). It is hard to see how you will enjoy your wife (or how she can possibly enjoy you) unless you are committed to loving her in a Christ-like way.
The love and the enjoyment go together (as we see from Solomon's love poems in the Song of Songs). If you love one another, be intentional about enjoying one another. But if you are having trouble staying in love, ask God for the grace to love again, the way that you used to, or maybe the way that you never have, but know you should. Here the Preacher says what the Bible says to husbands again and again, and frankly, what most husbands need to hear all the time: love your wives.
Understand that this is only a short-term calling. The Preacher tells husbands to enjoy their wives "all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life" (9:9). This is hardly the kind of statement that a woman is hoping to find written on her anniversary card! The Preacher is no more sentimental about marriage than he is about anything else in life. But that does not make him a cynic; on the contrary, he is giving us a serious, view of life that makes room for joy, but also faces up to the sober realities of life in a fallen world and the inevitable reality of death.
When the Preacher says that life is "vain," he uses the same word for vanity (hebel) that he has used throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. In this particular context, he is not saying that life is meaningless, but rather that life is short. Our earthly existence passes quickly, like smoke blown away by the wind. So we should make love while we still have the time.
The last pleasure that the Preacher mentions is work, which is part of our portion in life: "Enjoy … your toil at which you toil under the sun" (9:9). The phrase "under the sun" does not refer to backbreaking labor in the heat of the day, but to the regular calling of our earthly existence—whatever God has called us to do. Whether we labor in law, or science, or education, or construction, or medicine, or ministry, or the arts (or in all of those areas through the high calling of home-making), God has given us good work to do. As the Preacher has said before, this work is a gift from God, which we should enjoy as long as we can.
He goes on in verse 10 to reinforce what he says about work by giving a strong command: "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might" (9:10). Here the Bible tells us what to do, namely, whatever lies near at hand. The point is not that we should work randomly, or do whatever we please. Rather, in the course of God's providence, some things lie in the path of our duty—things that are pleasing to God. But we can only do what God has given us to do, not the things that he has placed out of our reach. In his sermon on this verse, Charles Spurgeon described a young man who dreamed of standing under a banyan tree and preaching eloquent sermons to people in India. "My dear fellow," said Spurgeon, why don't you try the streets of London first, and see whether you are eloquent there!" Every one of us should do whatever work God has given us to do.
The Preacher also tells us the way to do this work—not just what to do, but how to do it: with all our might. As we have the opportunity, we should work with all our strength. Yet how easy it is to while away the hours, not focusing on the things we know that God wants us to do, but idling away our time with lots of little distractions. Are you giving God one hundred percent of your working time, or are you giving him somewhat less than your very best? The Puritan William Perkins said: "We must take heed of two damnable sins …. The first is idleness, whereby the duties of our callings … are neglected or omitted. The second is slothfulness, whereby they are performed slackly and carelessly." Ecclesiastes 9:10 is the perfect remedy for both of these sins because it tells us both what to do and how to do it. Do whatever you are called to do, and do it with all your strength.
The spirit of what the Preacher says about the pleasures of wine, women, and work is captured well by Eugene Peterson's loose paraphrase in The message:
Seize life! Eat bread with gusto,
Drink wine with a robust heart.
Oh yes—God takes pleasure in your pleasure!
Dress festively every morning.
Don't skimp on colors and scarves.
Relish life with the spouse you love
Each and every day of your precarious life.
Each day is God's gift. It's all you get in exchange
For the hard work of staying alive.
Make the most of each one!
Whatever turns up, grab it and do it! (Eccles. 9:7-10).
There are millions of ways to apply this passage, with its call to Christian hedonism. This is a beautiful, bountiful world, and we were designed to enjoy its pleasures. So make the most of every day. This week I have tasted some of the little joys of life (most of them free): a warm piece of cornbread, fresh from the oven; the sight of two hawks soaring high over the city on their daily hunt; an evening with friends; shooting baskets and playing catch with my sons; a good strong hug from each of my three favorite daughters. To have these joys is to know my Father's grace.
But there is also a deadly spiritual danger in the pursuit of pleasure. We may get so distracted by earthly pleasures that we lose our passion for God. How tempting it is to worship the gift and forget the Giver!
Some people live for food. They make a god out of their bellies (Philippians 3:19), and thus they are guilty of gluttony (which has little or nothing to do with how much people weigh, incidentally, but everything to do with our attitude toward food). Some people are addicted to wine or strong drink. They are guilty of drunkenness and dissipation (Luke 21:34). Others live for a relationship. Maybe it is the romance they have, which has turned inward rather than outward, in service to others. Or maybe it is the relationship they do not have, which has become one of their main frustrations in life. Then there are the people who live for their work; maybe often they are living for the money that their work produces.
The pleasures that people pursue are usually good in themselves. The danger comes when they take the place of God. "Sin is not just the doing of bad things," says Tim Keller, "but the making of good things into ultimate things. It is seeking to establish a sense of self by making something else more central to your significance, purpose, and happiness than your relationship to God." The list of good things that can get in the way of God is endless. For some people it may be new clothes or video games. For others it may be antiques and opera music, or sports, or academics, or the hobby that takes up all their weekends. The world is full of good things that bring pleasure to life but were never intended to satisfy the soul. When we pursue these things apart from a relationship with God, we end up losing the joy that they can bring to life.
The grace of gratitude
Some Christians deal with this danger by self denial. Rather than letting certain pleasures lead them astray, they deny them altogether. They follow the rules that the Colossians used to make: "Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch" (Colossians 2:21).
Admittedly, there may be some pleasures that some people should deny—not as an absolute rule for all Christians everywhere, but as a matter of personal wisdom. "All things are lawful," the Scripture says, "but not all things are helpful" (1 Corinthians 11:23). For example, it may be wise for someone who has abused alcohol to vow never to take another sip of wine. Or it may be wise for someone who watches too much television to lock the TV set in the closet for a year. Things that are not wrong in themselves may nevertheless be wrong for a particular person, or at a particular time.
In general, though, this is not the approach that the Bible teaches us to take with the good things of life. What it tells us to do instead is to receive pleasure with gratitude to God, returning our thanks to him. One of the best ways for us to keep the good things of life in their proper perspective is to praise the Giver for all of his gifts. "Everything created by God is good," the Scripture says, "and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving" (1 Timothy 4:4).
This gives us a good test to use for all our earthly pleasures. We can ask ourselves: When I pray, is this something I would feel good about including in my thanksgiving, or would I be embarrassed to mention it? Am I thanking God for this pleasure, or have I been enjoying it without ever giving him a second thought? When we are enjoying legitimate pleasures in a God-honoring way, it seems natural to include them in our prayers. But when we pursue them for their own sake, usually we do not pray about them much at all (or about anything else, for that matter).
Derek Kidner says that God alone "is the source of all the gifts of earthly life: its bread and wine, festivity and work, marriage and love." Every pleasure comes from the God of all pleasure, and therefore it should be received with thanksgiving and praise. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote: "Earth's crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God; / But only he who sees, takes off his shoes." Do you see all the gifts that God has given to you, and then respond with holy praise?
This is why we pray before we eat. We are giving thanks to the God who put bread on our table and drink in our glass. We should view marriage the same way: as something good that is intended to point us to God. The Puritan Caroline Perthes gave this advice to her married daughter: "Your mutual love can be a means of happiness and blessing, only as it increases your love to God." Our work can give us the same kind of blessing, provided that we receive it as a gift from God and then offer it back to him in joyful service. For people who enjoy as many blessings as we do, the words "Thank you, Father," should never be far from our grateful lips.
This is especially true for everyone who knows the grace of God through the saving work of Jesus Christ—his death on the cross for our sins and his return from the grave with the free gift of eternal life. We have even more to celebrate than the Preacher of Ecclesiastes because we know "the good news of great joy" that God announced through the coming of Christ (see Luke 2:10). It is for this reason, most of all, that we are able to eat our bread with joy, and drink wine with a merry heart, and enjoy life with the people we love, and find enjoyment in the hard work of our daily calling. It is all because we know the Savior.
The pleasures in this passage are all pleasures that Jesus enjoyed during his earthly ministry, or enjoys now in his eternal kingdom. When Jesus broke bread for his disciples (see John 6:11), and when he lifted up the cup of their salvation (see Luke 22:19-20), he gave thanks to his Father in heaven. Whatever work he ever did for our salvation, he did with all his might. "My food," he said, "is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work" (John 4:34). Now Jesus is waiting for his eternal bride, which is one of the common metaphors the Bible uses for the people of God. Jesus desires to enjoy life with us, the people he loves.
One of the best ways for us to enjoy life with Jesus is by sharing in his pleasures. All of the good things mentioned in Ecclesiastes 9 symbolize the gifts of his grace. Jesus gives us our daily bread (see Luke 11:3). He makes our hearts glad with the bread and the wine of the Lord's Supper. He has anointed our heads with the oil—the oil of the Holy Spirit. He has invited us to the wedding supper of heaven, where he will be our worthy groom and we will be his beautiful bride (see Revelation 19:7, 9). He has promised to give us spotless white to wear in his eternal kingdom, where we will join the celebration that never ends (see Revelation 7:9, 14).
Numbering our days
In the meantime, Jesus has given us good work to do—the work of his kingdom. We should do this work as well as we can, for as long as we have the opportunity, because—like usual—the Preacher ends by reminding us that our days are numbered. Here is his sober motivation for working with all our might: "for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going" (9:10).
The word "Sheol" is not a synonym for "Hell," but simply refers to the place of the dead, whether good or evil. Martin Luther said it well: Sheol is "the hidden resting-place … outside of the present life, where the soul departs to its place." When the Preacher says that there is no work or wisdom there, he may sound as if he denies the afterlife. But the Preacher is not trying to answer our questions about what does or does not happen to us after we die; for that we need to turn to other places in Scripture. He simply is saying that we are all going to die, and that when we do, it will be the end of our work on earth, the end of everything we know about what is happening in the world, and the end of all our earthly pleasures.
If it is true that our work time is limited, then we need to be sure that we do the most important work of the soul, which is to repent of our sin and believe in Jesus Christ for our salvation. Once we have done that, we may enjoy the good life that God has given to us as long as we can and work hard at living for Jesus, sharing the gospel, loving our neighbors, and doing all of the other kingdom things that God has called us to do. Jesus said something very similar: "We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work" (John 9:4).
The time is short. This makes some Christians think that we do not have time for the joyous activities described in Ecclesiastes 9, like celebrating, and maybe even marrying. But these things still have their place in life. In fact, the right kind of enjoyment will prove to be one of our best preparations for eternity. Our earthly pleasures are telling us that we were made for another world. Every honest day's work brings us one day closer to our eternal rest. Every good meal is a reminder that we have been invited to the last and the best of all banquets. Every God-centered party anticipates the heavenly celebration that will never end.
Marriage, too, is part of our preparation for glory. In his book on marriage, Bishop Jeremy Taylor acknowledged that one day everything that pleases us about marriage will pass away. "At the resurrection," he said, "there shall be no relation of husband and wife, and no marriage shall be celebrated but the marriage of the Lamb." Nevertheless, Taylor said, "we will all remember that there was such a thing on earth as marriage, and we will see for ourselves that it was part of our preparation for eternity. Whenever we saw an eager groom, and his bride dressed in white, we were catching a glimpse of the eternal love that Jesus has for all his people."
One day we will enter the full joy of that love. Taylor described what that day will be like for Christian couples: even though they will not be married, they will nevertheless "pass to the spiritual and eternal, where love shall be their portion, and joys shall crown their heads, and they shall lie in the bosom of Jesus, and in the heart of God, to eternal ages."
These joys are not just for husbands and wives, but for all the children of God. And what Bishop Taylor said about marriage is true of every good thing in life. One day love will be our portion, joy will crown our heads, and we will rest with Jesus in the heart of our God forever. When we have these pleasures in heaven, we will realize that we first experienced them here on earth. Every earthly joy is the foretaste of a better life to come, in the Paradise where God has promised us pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11).
Philip Ryken is president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.