Christians treat the book of Ecclesiastes as a chore – a melancholy menagerie of sadness. But what if the book’s core message is joy in Christ?
Ecclesiastes teaches us that life is vapor, we can’t really know anything, and that nothing under the sun matters, right? At least, this is the common wisdom about the book: it is how we preach it, and we’re not sure what to do with it otherwise. We’re pretty sure that it has a good message somewhere deep down. Thankfully, after toiling through the book, we finally arrive at chapter 12: ah! Fear God, keep his commandments! We finally know what to do with the book!
But what if the good news of Ecclesiastes was spread throughout the book? Qoheleth wrote to spread words of joy (Ecclesiastes 12), so why would this book be any different? How could it not be about joy: it is primarily a book about Christ! There is joy to be had in our eating and drinking (plenty of proof texts). The eating and drinking is itself good, as it is a physical reminder of the bread and wine that is Christ’s body, given to us on the cross. This food and drink does not come from nowhere; rather, we are enjoying the fruit of our labors. This circles back to our labor, making it feel more valid on that sense. This is all joy because this all comes from the hand of God. He is the one who appoints our work, and he is the one who commands us to enjoy our work. He is the one who created, he is the one who can shepherd the wind, and his is the word which transcends our vaporous life.
Our hesitations, our fears, in handling Ecclesiastes start in the early chapters. Qoheleth, the Teacher, tells us that all is hevel. This word is the root of the name Abel, from Genesis 4. We should not be surprised to find Eden imagery in the book: the word ruach is used 22 times, bringing us back to the spirit of God who hovered over the waters. Solomon’s building projects, of lakes and gardens and houses, are reminiscent of the land of Eden and the mountain at the highest point. Abel’s story is a sad one: though he is a priest, prayerfully offering up atonement for himself and his brother, he is killed. Cain’s gift of the cursed ground to God is unacceptable without his brother. The first is subservient to the work of the younger, a theme repeated throughout Genesis. Cain, in his anger, jealousy, and rage, kills Abel. This is the first time we learn that there is no one-to-one correlation between goodness and obedience, and that even the good die young sometimes.
So, Qoheleth starts by saying that everything is hevel! Nothing seems new, and everything continues as it has been. “Under the sun”, or in the current age, nothing has happened that has not happened before. The sun marks out seasons (Genesis 1), and these seasons are inevitable to every human. We will all die, we will all mourn, we will all work, we will all rejoice (3:1-8). Those expecting something new “under the sun”, in the current age, will be disappointed.
How did Solomon learn this? By repeating the same mistakes as Adam, on a national scale. Like Adam, Solomon forced himself to become the greatest of all men. He asked for the wisdom that Adam failed to gain (Genesis 2:9; cf. I Kings 3:9). He usurped power, and took upon himself the pleasure that God seems to have denied. He drank his fill of wine (Ecc. 2:1-11), despite Deuteronomistic prohibitions against it (Deuteronomy 17:16). He took servants for himself. He even tried to build himself a garden, one like the Garden of Eden! He took for himself many brides, again failing to heed the word of Torah.
Because of this, Solomon suffers a fate similar to that of Adam. As Adam was booted to the Garden, Solomon’s kingdom would be split in two by his son (cf. I Kings 11). This means that his worst fear, that a foolish man would gain what he worked for and sour it, has come to pass because of his folly.
Out of this, Qoheleth is able to share good news and bad news. He shares with us what he absolutely knows to be true, first of all. He shares with us what hope we have under the sun. Finally, he shares with us our duties that we carry out as we wait for the current age to pass.
As Solomon reflects on a life of loss, he does so with the greatest wisdom man had ever had at that point. The Teacher approaches everything with skepticism: he is not sure what is true, what is good. He can declare, relatively, that some things are better than others, but he doesn’t know much about the world at large. Though eternity is in our hearts, we cannot know what God has done from the beginning. But the Teacher does know a few things:
“I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime” (3:12).
“I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him” (3:14).
“Rejoice, young man, during your childhood, and let your heart be pleasant during the days of young manhood. And follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes yet know that God will bring you to judgment for all these things” (11:9).
Based on his absolute knowledge of what God does and who he is, Solomon is able to advocate for joy in our work. He says that our lot in life is enjoying feasting, and it is enjoying it with people we love. He even advocates for grabbing a beer with your buddies, cause who knows how long life lasts?
The basis for our work is not permanence: rather, it is God’s approval of us. We are justified before God, and out of that justification we have joy. (Ecclesiastes 9:7) His approval is the basis by which we operate, and the hope we have in the judgment we will be brought to. This approval is the basis by which we enjoy our work: God appointed it, and approves of it. When we do what God approves, we find joy! This approval is the basis of our feasting and enjoying the fruit of the labor: we can rest because we are approved already. We are not gaining anything we lack by going overboard as Qoheleth did.
Work is part of God’s gift to man (Genesis 2). Just because it doesn’t last doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it! And, Qoheleth learns, since work comes from God, that is the basis by which we enjoy it! Notice he doesn’t say that we should enjoy our work because it lasts; rather, he says we should enjoy our work because it comes from the hand of God. (2:24-26) If we work to please God, we will be given wisdom, knowledge, and joy, while those who work for themselves are given folly and vanity. We are not given permanence in our work, but the things that help us to serve God better.
In fact, it is a good thing that our work is not permanent. The Garden was not permanent because it was not our eschatological final stage. The Old Testament calls us back at the Garden to propletically guide us to look forward to the new Jerusalem, the one the prophets could only dream of.
So, Qoheleth ends with a final admonishment: enjoy God and remember him in our youth. Obey his commandments. We cannot obey the commandments without knowing what God commands, so he is advocating for us to read and meditate on the Torah. In following God’s commandments, we escape the judgment that is coming. By following the commandments, we live within God’s boundaries, giving us the absolute freedom to enjoy what we do in him. Without the law, we might be given over to the same licentiousness that Qoheleth found himself privy to. In Torah, we are free to live as God called us to, which leads to a life of joy.
On this side of the cross, in the New Covenant: we see this played out explicitly. At the fullness of time, as the seasons have passed by under the sun unchanged, God is doing something different. The Christ has come, born of a virgin, to save us from the old age and bring us into the new age. In his justification (I Timothy 3:16), Christ and the Spirit bring us our justification, or approval by God. This is the basis by which we live: we don’t live according to the law to gain God’s approval, as we already have it! Justification serves as the basis of our joyful obedience.