Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

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Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

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Keeping Busy With Joy (Part 2)

At last verses 18-20 return us to the refrain of Ecclesiastes encouraging us to eat and drink and enjoy the good of one’s labor as the gift of God (see Ecclesiastes 2:24; Ecclesiastes 3:12-13, Ecclesiastes 3:22)—this being good and fitting or beautiful—as the conclusion to the book’s second major section that began in Ecclesiastes 3:1. This section has been about pondering God’s all-encompassing plan—the overall beautiful picture God is painting. We saw it presented with the times of life in Ecclesiastes 3:1-15. We saw problems of the human condition that can seem contrary to God’s sovereignty over life in Ecclesiastes 3:16–4:16. And now in Ecclesiastes 5:1-17 we’ve seen cautions about proper approach and outlook, without which one will lose sight of God’s overarching care and suffer worse problems.

With the section conclusion we see the viable alternative to the problems thus far presented. The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries volume on Ecclesiastes states regarding verse 18: “There is another life, equally outward, real, observable. I have seen it, says the Preacher. It is enjoyable in toil, not in its absence. It is a God-given provision in a brief life. To eat and drink is expressive of companionship, joy and satisfaction, including religious celebration (D[euteronomy] 14:26); here it is the symbol of a contented and happy life” (Eaton, note on verse 18). And verse 19 of Ecclesiastes 5 again informs us that not only what we enjoy, but the ability to enjoy it, comes from God.

The Preaching the Word commentary puts it well: “Some scholars find these verses so completely contrary to what the Preacher has already said that they think he must be speaking sarcastically, or at least stoically [in pessimistically telling us to enjoy small pleasures amid dreariness and soon-coming death]…. [But] when the Preacher calls life ‘the gift of God,’ he is giving it the highest praise. This is not stoicism or sarcasm but godly gratitude. The Preacher can say this because he believes in the God of joy. Earlier in this passage, when he was talking about the vanity of money, the Preacher hardly mentioned God at all. But in verses 18-20 he mentions him repeatedly. Whatever enjoyment he finds is God-centered. Without God, life is meaningless and miserable, especially if we are living for money. But when we know the God of joy, even money can be a blessing. To understand this, we need to pay attention to the phrasing of verse 19. Earlier the Preacher listed some of the many reasons why accumulating money is vanity. Yet here he tells us explicitly that if we are wealthy, we should enjoy it. It almost sounds like a contradiction, but notice where the power of enjoyment comes from: it comes from God. Both having things and enjoying things are gifts from God” (Ryken, pp. 136-137).

As pointed out before, some consider this call to enjoy material blessings as selfish. But it certainly is not. Expositor’s notes in its introduction to Ecclesiastes: “Interestingly, the book makes no suggestion of living a life of self-sacrifice, so as to spur the reader on to a life of philanthropy or self-deprivation. Qoheleth would most likely identify self-sacrifice as meaningless if it is motivated by any degree of self-satisfaction. We need to remember that the author is not trying to describe the life of faith or what our faith responsibilities are [except that He will conclude by telling us to fear God and keep His commandments]. Rather, he is contrasting a self-centered life style with a God-centered one”—in regard to how we ponder and respond to life’s quandaries (Wright). By what the book does tell us, we can be assured that if we spent ourselves and all our resources in trying to help all humanity and right all the wrongs, we would still find that “what is crooked cannot be made straight” (Ecclesiastes 1:15; compare Ecclesiastes 7:13). Indeed, we ourselves would then become a burden to others. Nevertheless, the book does encourage us to be good before God and to respond appropriately to life’s circumstances. Obviously this includes helping others in need as we are in a position to reasonably do so. (Some believe Ecclesiastes 11:1-2 refers to charitable giving, but while the verses could have application to that, they seem to more broadly concern diversification, as we’ll see.)

Moreover, the commendation of the simple pleasures of life is not about the hedonistic pursuit already shown to fail. Neither is it about self-focus. Where the refrains speak of eating and drinking, “it is clear that what Qohelet means by this is the time spent with family and friends around a common table. It is not the profound and expansive accomplishments of mankind that bring meaning and joy, but the unpretentious, everyday routine of eating together. Sitting with family and friends to eat after a day’s labor; laughing and enjoying the friendship around the table; finding a moment of cheer together; enjoying the companionship of one’s spouse—these are the small yet profound moments in which we recognize an even greater truth: we were created for relationship and it is in relationship with others and God that we find true meaning and joy” (Tim Hegg, “Qohelet and Sukkot,”, 2001).

Given the repeated exhortation to enjoyment in everyday life, it is astonishing that Ecclesiastes was a motivation for austere monasticism in the Roman Catholic faith. Martin Luther, father of the Protestant Reformation, wrote in the preface to his commentaries on Ecclesiastes of “many of the saintly and illustrious theologians in the church, who thought that [in Ecclesiastes] Solomon was teaching what they call ‘the contempt of the world,’ that is, contempt of things that have been created and established by God. Among these is St. Jerome, who by writing a commentary on this book urged Blesilla [the daughter of a certain Paula who had already adopted Jerome’s asceticism] to accept the monastic life. From this source there arose and spread over the entire church, like a flood, that theology of the religious orders of monasteries. It was taught that to be a Christian meant to forsake the household, the political order…to flee to the desert, to isolate oneself from human society, to live in stillness and silence; for it was impossible to serve God in the world” (quoted by Limburg, Encountering Ecclesiastes, p. 18). As Luther rightly pointed out, the book actually teaches against this.

God Himself wants us to enjoy the ongoing blessings He gives us. He designed us to experience them, and they help us to endure life. Ecclesiastes 5:20 adds a new, remarkable concept for the person finding joy in everyday living: “For he will not dwell unduly on the days of his life, because God keeps him busy with the joy of his heart.” This recalls the poem of the times of life at the beginning of the section in chapter 3. Trying to gain a handle on it or make sense of it all is wearisome and futile though we all try. And one big point of contemplation here is recognition of one’s own mortality. Yet the difficulties and brevity of life do not overly preoccupy the minds of those who find enjoyment in life through God. (And in fact, Solomon right after the poem gave the prescription of enjoying everyday life along with properly fearing God in Ecclesiastes 3:12-15.)

The Tyndale commentary notes on Ecclesiastes 5:20: “Secular man may live a life of drudgery, but for the God-centered man it will be otherwise…. Life will be so occupied with jubilation that the vanity of life will be well-nigh forgotten. It is not entirely forgotten, however, for the word much [or unduly]…implies that life’s brevity will be kept in mind (cf. Psalm 90:12), but not so as to give the sleepless nights of Ecclesiastes 2:23. The Hebrew of keeps him occupied [or busy] with is linked with the term ‘business’ that has occurred throughout Ecclesiastes. There is a business that vexes and frustrates (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:13; Ecclesiastes 4:8), the life given to man to live within a vain world with its kinks and gaps (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:15). The Preacher repeats his remedy of a God-given life of faith and joy, which is even more preoccupying.”

Luther commented that Ecclesiastes 5:18-20 gives the clue to understanding the book as a whole: “This statement is the interpreter of the entire book: Solomon intends to forbid [or help us to be rid of] vain anxieties, so that we may happily enjoy the things that are present and not care at all about the things that are in the future, lest we permit the present moment, our moment, to slip away” (quoted by Limburg, p. 66). As Limburg summarizes: “The book…is a call to avoid anxiety, to embrace joy in the everyday present where we live, and to leave the future in God’s hands…. The Teacher counsels living fully each day of one’s life, one day at a time, enjoying God’s gifts and enjoying one’s work” (p. 78). Christ also taught this principle of focusing on the present day in Matthew 6:34.

And let us consider that ultimate fullness of joy and contented peace forever awaits those who live life in service to God through Christ (Psalm 16:11; Psalm 37:1-11; John 15:11; Acts 2:28). They will at last “enter into the joy of [their] Lord” (Matthew 25:21-23). Still, abundant, joyful living (John 10:10) need not—must not—wait until then. As Ecclesiastes repeatedly affirms, it is a gift for today as well.