Enjoy This Life While It Lasts, Removing Upset and Harm
We come now to the start of the third subsection of the last major section of Ecclesiastes that began in Ecclesiastes 8:16 concerning “removing discouragement and applying God’s plan to the lives of believers,” per Dr. Walter Kaiser’s outline in Ecclesiastes: Total Life. This third subsection (Ecclesiastes 11:7–12:8), the final subsection before the book’s conclusion, tells us to remember our Creator in the days of our youth (Ecclesiastes 12:1), tempering enjoyment of the present with reflection on future death and divine judgment. In the words of Kaiser’s outline, “The daily reminder of our imminent death and the prospect of facing our Creator and Judge should infect [or impact] all our God-given joy and activity” (p. 116). He puts the end of the subsection at Ecclesiastes 12:8, the book’s final vanity declaration restated from the beginning of the book (see Ecclesiastes 1:2), but he also sees Ecclesiastes 12:8 as transitional to and starting the book’s final conclusion (though there is an obvious break after this verse, as we’ll see).
Recall that we have been reading a long stretch of proverbs that began in Ecclesiastes 9:16, interrupted briefly by an observation of Solomon in Ecclesiastes 10:5-7, with apparent thematic transitions in Ecclesiastes 10:1, Ecclesiastes 10:4 and Ecclesiastes 11:1. The series of proverbs now continues, but as previously noted there is again a clear thematic transition in Ecclesiastes 11:7. We can see the unity of the new subsection (Ecclesiastes 11:7–12:8) in the recurrent subject matter and related construction of three segments, each ending with “vanity.” The first segment (Ecclesiastes 11:7-8) starts with rejoicing and living many years but says we need to remember the dark days ahead, ending with a declaration that what’s coming in this life is vanity. The second segment (Ecclesiastes 11:9-10) tells the young to rejoice in their youth but avoid problems, being mindful of coming judgment, ending with a declaration that young life is vanity. The third segment (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8) then says to remember our Creator in youth before the coming difficult days of getting older and dying, ending with the declaration that all is vanity, as at the opening of the book. (We may note that there was no use of the term vanity in the previous lengthy subsection, Ecclesiastes 9:10-11:6—the last mention having been amid the refrain at the end of the subsection prior to that in Ecclesiastes 9:9.)
Through this current subsection (Ecclesiastes 11:7–12:8), Solomon is describing growing old—and it seems likely that he was experiencing this himself, perhaps writing Ecclesiastes late in life following, it is hoped, coming to his senses after his wayward years (though this is not certain, and he makes no mention of coming to repentance in the book). In any case, we can perhaps imagine Solomon speaking to his younger self in what is stated here. If only he had kept his Creator in mind as he grew older. Was it too late for him? Well, for enjoying all the blessings of remaining faithful over the years, yes it was too late. But for finding joy in God upon repentance, it is never too late as long as one is still willing to repent. We must all remember that. But, oh, what wasted years! What a terrible tragedy was Solomon’s life! It’s even possible that Ecclesiastes was written earlier, before his life went into depravity, and that he never came to repentance—which would be an even greater tragedy. But, again, we would hope that he did come at last to repent, with Ecclesiastes representing the wisdom he had come to the hard way—and with him now counseling the young as a father or teacher (compare “my son” in Ecclesiastes 12:12) to learn from the words of the wise and not have to go through what he did. Yet still, it’s even possible that Ecclesiastes was written after Solomon came to a time of clarity and repentance in old age with him turning away from God even after that. Of course, there is no way for us to know. The counsel of the book is still valid, even if Solomon himself failed to heed it.
Something else to take note of here is the mention in Ecclesiastes 11:7-8 of rejoicing in one’s years and the encouragement to rejoice in one’s youth in verse 9 and remove sorrow in verse 10—all in light of the repeated refrain of the book about finding enjoyment in life. The last occurrence of the refrain was at the end of the first subsection of this final major section (in Ecclesiastes 9:7-10). There was no occurrence of the refrain at Ecclesiastes 11:6, ending the second subsection of this major section. So one might think that verses 7-10 should actually come at the end of that subsection as a new and final occurrence of the refrain—though in a much different form, with a qualification to remember coming death and judgment, as we’ve also seen in the book to an extent. However, verses 7-10 do not seem directly related to the verses that come before, except perhaps to say that in whatever venture one enters into he must keep this thought in mind. Moreover, verses 7-10 quite clearly go with what follows about growing old and dying in Ecclesiastes 12:1-7, as we’ve seen. Still, Ecclesiastes 11:7-10 does seem to be related to the recurring refrain. Perhaps the wording here is meant as a warning qualification about applying the refrain instances given thus far—that in rejoicing as the refrain says, we must be mindful of coming judgment. It’s even possible that the entire final subsection here (Ecclesiastes 11:7–12:8) is itself a final occurrence of the refrain with a needed lengthy qualification—and then further qualification and summary in the final conclusion of Ecclesiastes 12:8-14. In any case, the final subsection here and the summary conclusion that follows definitely help to put the book’s repeated calls for enjoyment into much needed and even vital perspective.
Going through the individual proverbial statements here, Ecclesiastes 11:7-8 starts on quite a high— with positive, upbeat affirmation—before plunging into unpleasantness. Yet that unpleasantness serves as a very valuable reminder intended for positive results. The passage begins, “Truly the light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to behold the sun...” (verse 7). This could mean that, as we saw earlier in Ecclesiastes 9:4, it’s good to be alive (compare Ecclesiastes 6:4, where a stillborn child “has not seen the sun”). Alternatively, beholding the sun in Ecclesiastes 11:7 might be a reference to experiencing the good days before having to endure the dark days to come, as that follows in the verses here (though it’s not clear if the dark times refers to worsening life or to being dead, the former seeming more likely, as we’ll see). We may note that two things are referred to as “sweet” in Ecclesiastes—the sleep of laborers in Ecclesiastes 5:12 and the morning light here in Ecclesiastes 11:7, waking to a new day (these two going together). Recall the beginning of the book, where one could experience boredom with the monotony of the sun rising each day (Ecclesiastes 1:5, see verses 1-11). That thinking is gone, with the recurring light of the sun now presented as a wonderful thing.
We might also note, as The New American Commentary points out, that “a number of scholars compare [the beginning of Ecclesiastes 11:7 with the 5th-century-B.C. Greek playwright] Euripedes, Iphigenia in Aulus 1.1219…(‘for the light is so sweet’). [Commentator] Gordis (Koheleth, 334) aptly comments: ‘There is no real likelihood of borrowing, merely a coincidence in the work of two great writers’” (Garrett, footnote on Ecclesiastes 11:7-8). However, it’s certainly possible that there was some borrowing—whether by Euripides from Solomon, or Euripides from traditional wisdom that started with Solomon, or by both Euripides and Solomon from an even older common tradition.
After mentioning the pleasantness of the sunlight in verse 7, the beginning of verse 8 continues on the high note, stating, “But if a man lives many years and rejoices in them all…” We must pause for a moment to consider what Solomon has just said here. Contrast these words with those who think this book is dour and that it says all of life is a big downer, presenting it as nothing but misery. How, then, could this verse make sense? Of course, the verse is not saying that every moment is joyful. It’s simply saying that it’s possible to rejoice in the years of this life taken as a whole—and maybe to be joyful while going through the years (compare Ecclesiastes 9:9, where Solomon said to live joyfully with one’s wife “all the days of your vain life which [God] has given you under the sun”). We should remember this point from Ecclesiastes 11:8 that it’s possible to enjoy one’s whole life as we continue into Solomon’s discussion of growing old. It is still sweet to be alive, and one is able to rejoice in all his many years—even with the problems that old age eventually brings.
But then comes the low note: “…Yet let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. All that is coming is vanity.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Wright) notes on verses 7-8: “It is usual to refer to ‘the days of darkness’ only to death…. But there is no real reason to include death at all, in view of the use of darkness to describe the effects of old age in Ecclesiastes 12:2-3”—the reference there being either to darkening clouds for hard times or to eyes growing dim with age. Darkness was used of a bad condition in this life in Ecclesiastes 5:17 yet of death in Ecclesiastes 6:4—and the passage about getting old ends with death and the spirit returning to God in Ecclesiastes 12:7. In any case, after speaking of rejoicing in the years of this life, Ecclesiastes 11:8 in its low note brings an important perspective to keep in mind—that we must enjoy this life while we can, considering that there will be hard times to endure and that this life will end. We earlier saw that it’s wise to contemplate our mortality (Ecclesiastes 7:2-4). The statement at the end of Ecclesiastes 11:8 that all that’s coming is vanity is, as previously noted, paralleled by the vanity declarations at the end of the next two segments in this subsection (Ecclesiastes 11:10 and Ecclesiastes 12:8). The vanity or frustration in 11:8 could conceivably refer to years of being dead, but it most likely concerns troubles that lie ahead in this life as one gets older. In either case, it does not deny the possibility of a happy life in a future resurrection, which the book implicitly acknowledges in stating trust in a good outcome for the righteous (as in Ecclesiastes 8:12-13).
The next verse, Ecclesiastes 11:9, further adds to this perspective. It commands rejoicing in one’s youth and being cheerful, as the repeated refrain of the book has shown (and this may be yet another form of the refrain, as already mentioned), but the verse then says God will bring judgment for what is done. We have seen this previously in the book (Ecclesiastes 3:17), and we will see it again in the book’s conclusion (Ecclesiastes 12:14). Thus we must keep in mind not only the hard times that lie ahead in life and death to follow, but also remain conscious of coming judgment and that we will give an account.
In reading Ecclesiastes 11:9, it might seem that Solomon has broken from his chain of proverbs to now address the young directly, but the words here could have been a standalone proverb generally applicable to the young, just as many of the sayings in the book of Proverbs are addressed to “you,” yet meaning no one in particular, just whomever fits what is being said.
Let’s also note a few more specifics about Ecclesiastes 11:9. On the directive to let your heart cheer you, it may be observed that Proverbs 15:13 says that “a merry heart makes a cheerful countenance,” while Ecclesiastes earlier associated a merry heart with eating and drinking in the book’s repeated refrain (see Ecclesiastes 8:15; Ecclesiastes 9:7; compare Ecclesiastes 10:19). So the sense in Ecclesiastes 11:9 seems to be that of enjoying oneself and having a good time—particularly when it’s paired with “in the days of your youth,” as with rejoicing in one’s youth mentioned in parallel just before. However, the word translated cheer more broadly means to do one good, which could also fit here. Jesus several times said to be of good cheer, though the sense in that case is to be of good courage—or to be encouraged or heartened—as God told Joshua (Joshua 1:6-7). Yet that might come within the broader sense of letting your heart do you good while young before difficult times come. (Consider John 16:33, where Jesus told His disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation [trial]; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world”—an attitude we must carry beyond youth to endure.) While the exhortation in Ecclesiastes 11:9 seems primarily to mean enjoy being young and live life to the full, that probably includes maintaining a sense of youthful optimism (as we’ll also see in verse 10), having so much life left to live and so much still to live for.
Of course, as already pointed out, the same verse ends with saying that youthful exuberance and escapades must be tempered with cognizance of having to give account for the choices we make. That is the context for understanding the words in the middle of the verse that parallel those given before about enjoying oneself while young: “Walk in the ways of your heart, and in the sight of your eyes.” As Kaiser notes, some wrongly take this “as a direct contradiction of Numbers 15:39b: ‘You shall…not follow after your own heart and your own eyes [after which you played the harlot (NASB)]’ (cf. Deut. 29:19; Job 31:7). Verse 9, however, is no contradiction to Numbers 15:39b or invitation to live sinfully in sensual pleasure…. [Rather] the verse is an invitation to youth to get all the cheer and joy they can out of innocent happiness. Yes, enjoy whatever you see or desire, but mark it down well and in the midst of your enjoyment remember that God will review even the quality of your pleasures and the manner in which you enjoy yourself. Verse 9 is no carte blanche or open season in which anything goes [just as with the repeated calls to enjoyment throughout the book]. Therefore, do not abuse this blessing with evil comforts and pleasures that offer no real joy. Real but innocent and pure pleasures are recommended. Life must be lived with eternity’s values in view” (p. 117). The apostle Paul would later warn against indiscriminately indulging youthful desires. He told the young evangelist Timothy to instead “flee also youthful lusts; but pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (2 Timothy 2:22).
There is also some interesting historical context for the end of Ecclesiastes 11. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible notes on “follow the ways of your heart” in verse 9: “The exhortation that we should ‘be happy’ in the context of facing the reality of death is similar to the message of the [Egyptian] Harpers’ Songs. For example, the “Song from the Tomb of King Intef,’ after mourning the fact that those who have built monuments before us are now silent in their crumbling tombs, urges the audience: ‘Hence rejoice in your heart! / Forgetfulness profits you, follow your heart as long as you live!’ Similar teaching is found in the ‘Instruction of Ptahhotep’ from the Middle Kingdom period of Egypt: ‘Follow your heart as long as you live, / Do no more than is required, / do not shorten the time of “follow-the-heart.”’ The similarity of the Egyptian and Biblical exhortations to ‘be happy’ and ‘follow’ the heart is striking, although the Bible is distinctive for linking this concept to a fear of God.” We are reminded that Solomon gathered wisdom from the international world around him, yet God inspired him to select and shape what he gathered to fit within a proper biblical worldview—at least in terms of what became part of Scripture.
The reminder in verse 9 that God will bring what we do into judgment does not present God as some grim, condemning ogre, as some might imagine, for it’s clear throughout the book that God desires to bless us and wants us to find enjoyment in life. In fact, His law is the path to true happiness (Psalm 112:1; Psalm 119:1; Proverbs 29:18). And His reminding us of judgment is to help us to stay on this path, as with any loving parent. Realize too that judgment is given for good and evil (Ecclesiastes 12:14)—and that while evil brings consequences, good brings rewards. And even evil can be forgiven upon repentance, allowing us to look ahead in hope. As Kaiser notes, Ecclesiastes 11:7-9 shows that “true happiness consists of simultaneously enjoying the present and looking forward to the future” (p. 117). Moreover, in contemplating that God will judge based on His law that brings happiness, we should consider that part of what He commands, and thus of what stands under judgment, is that we properly enjoy ourselves as He gives us the means to do so. “Rab, a Jewish teacher of the third century A.D., commented, ‘Man will have to give account for all that he saw and did not enjoy’” (Expositor’s, note on verse 9). What a different light that casts on this passage.
Adding to the admonition of verse 9, verse 10 states, as the NKJV renders it, “Therefore remove sorrow from your heart, and put away evil from your flesh, for childhood and youth are vanity.” Here are negatives that prevent the commended enjoyment of life—problems we need to strive to be rid of. Instead of “sorrow,” some translate the original Hebrew word here as “care,” and they take the wording to mean that we should be carefree in a hedonistic sense of doing what we want without fear of consequences. Yet that directly contradicts what was just said in the previous verses and in the book as a whole. Given in the Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries is the meaning “vexation. The Hebrew ka‘as refers to that which angers, grieves or irritates. Used elsewhere of the sin of man which ‘vexes’ God (D[euteronomy] 32:19), or the ‘provocation’ of a woman by a jealous rival (1 Sa[muel] 1:6), in Ecclesiastes it refers to the perplexity (Ecclesiastes 1:18), grief (Ecclesiastes 2:23; Ecclesiastes 7:3) or irritation (Ecclesiastes 7:9) caused by sheer experience of life” (Eaton, note on Ecclesiastes 11:10). The point here, then, is to stop letting things get you down and upset, leading to disillusionment and cynicism. The New American Commentary, in a footnote on verses 9-10, says the meaning is to “cast away grief from yourself (over the human condition)”—that being what the whole book is about.
Thus, the directive here is really to cheer up—in line with the previous verse. Despite the problems of this life, there is much to be happy and hopeful about. Of course, God wants us to “sigh and cry” over the terrible things in this world (Ezekiel 9:4), and we already saw in Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 that there is value in mourning. But this should not be constant, to where we are continually moping and depressed. Ecclesiastes recommends enjoyment far more than it does mourning. Consider that Jesus Himself was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3), yet He was also “anointed…with the oil of gladness more than [His] companions” (Psalm 45:7; Hebrews 1:9). Despite life’s sorrows, we must not despair but must continue to rejoice in the precious gifts of life God has given us.
One way to remove vexation and sorrow is to stop doing wrong and wracking our lives with problems and guilt. Ecclesiastes 11:9 had said to enjoy life while keeping the future in mind. Problems arise when we fail to do this—forgetting the joyful rewards ahead and despairing, and forgetting the consequences for misdeeds and so giving in to temptations to sin, leading eventually to yet further despair when we do think of consequences. Expositor’s comments: “Obviously, young people face strong temptations, and vanity and frustration are as much a part of adolescence as vitality. So youth must say no as well as yes and must discard whatever damages mind or body” (note on verse 10). The second line of verse 10 seems to speak of the need to stop sinning in the NKJV wording: “Put away evil from your flesh.” However, the meaning of this verse is disputed. The NIV has: “Cast off the troubles of your body”—as the “evil” here can just mean bad or harm, and the reference to the flesh can refer to either how one uses one’s body or what happens to one’s body. Some other versions say the wording here means to remove pain from your body. The Preaching the Word commentary sees in verse 10 the removal of discouragement of the mind in the first line and removing damage to our bodies in the second line—thus taking care of mental and physical health. Certainly we should try to remain psychologically and physically healthy and avoid harm to our bodies to better experience joy in this life. Yet, as the Tyndale commentary states, the reference to flesh “portrays man in his weakness, both physical weariness (Ecclesiastes 12:12) and moral frailty (Ecclesiastes 5:6)” (note on Ecclesiastes 11:10). And it fits quite well in context to see putting away evil or harm away from one’s flesh as a reference to avoiding sin.
A note in the Preaching the Word commentary contends that “since ‘flesh’ ordinarily refers to the human body (not to moral weakness, as it often does in the New Testament), the ‘evil’ the Preacher has in mind is physical pain” (Ryken, p. 296). But reference to flesh can certainly apply in moral terms. Prior to Noah’s Flood, God saw that “all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth” (Genesis 6:12). And earlier in Ecclesiastes, Solomon said, “I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine” (Ecclesiastes 2:3)—which clearly has moral implications. And even more to the point is what Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 5:6, cited above in the Tyndale commentary: “Do not let your mouth cause your flesh to sin….” So the evil to remove from the flesh could well be sin. In fact, sin is a greater bad to avoid than bodily harm. Physical detriment may be unavoidable, and is sometimes even the preferred course. (Consider suffering at the hands of others for righteousness’ sake, as Jesus and many biblical heroes of faith did.) But we should always avoid sin. Of course, we should take care of our physical bodies as we are reasonably able to. In fact, being intentionally careless regarding our bodily health is itself sin—for we are to be faithful stewards of our bodies, which along with our whole selves actually belong to God (compare Psalm 24:1; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20).
The final line of verse 10, “for childhood and youth are vanity [or frustration],” is again parallel to the other vanity declarations ending the segments of this subsection (Ecclesiastes 11:8; Ecclesiastes 12:8). The wording here in Ecclesiastes 11:10 could be understood in context of the preceding statements about making the most of one’s youth while it lasts—the frustration being that youth is passing or fleeting. Or it’s possible that the vanity or frustration is the fact that youth is beset with many unwise choices and sins—requiring the counteraction just mentioned in verses 9-10 of focus on the future and removal of problems so as to rightly enjoy the time of one’s youth. A modern proverb says, “Youth is wasted on the young.” That is, youth is often spent foolishly—so by the time one is wise enough to properly appreciate and use the opportunities and abilities of youth, youth is over. Of course there is still life to live, and youth, even when misspent to some extent, will have hopefully taught us many lessons. Sadly, young people often look on themselves and their peers as far wiser than they are—and sometimes more so than those they regard as old and foolish and “trapped in the past.” While a younger person can be wiser than one who is older (see Ecclesiastes 4:13, for instance), that isn’t typically the case. And most young people come to see this as they get older themselves. Yet some still refuse to grow up. Another vanity or frustration is the obsession of many to hold on to youth in various ways. Some while growing older want to seem, and to see themselves, as much younger than they are—perhaps by their dress, immature living, associations, interests, and now medical treatments like cosmetic surgery. We should enjoy youth but not try vainly to hold on to it at all costs. As Derek Kidner writes in The Message of Ecclesiastes: “To idolize the state of youth and to dread the loss of it is disastrous; it spoils the gift even while we have it. To see it, instead, as a passing phase, ‘beautiful in its time’ but not beyond it, is to be free from its frustrations” (p. 99).
Now, what if you are an older person reading Ecclesiastes 11:9-10 and the next verse, Ecclesiastes 12:1, about remembering your Creator while young? You might think that these verses do not really apply to you. But recognize that however old you are now, you are still younger than you will yet grow to be. The admonition to enjoy life and have good cheer is still meant for you. Recall that Ecclesiastes 11:8, which began this subsection, said it’s possible to rejoice in all the years one has. But with the call to rejoicing, the reminder of coming difficulties, death and judgment also applies—as does the instruction to remove vexation and harmful elements from your life, including sin. All of us need to learn and live by these vital principles— as long as we have life yet to live, however long that might be. And for those of you who are younger, don’t assume you have all the time in the world. You may not have so much life left as it seems. Something could happen to take your life suddenly—and the end of this age is swiftly approaching. So all of us, of whatever age, need to maintain a sense of urgency about life and living as God tells us to—while we still have life and breath. This life won’t last forever. And even if there are still many years left, the years go by quickly.