For some Christians, the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes has a bad reputation as being a “negative”, “pessimistic” book. There’s some truth to that assessment—the book’s theme is “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” However, interspersed with Solomon’s grim observations are plenty of passages where he tells people to enjoy life and take pleasure in their work. In almost every chapter, Solomon concludes by telling his readers to enjoy whatever pleasure they can in life.
This is no private opinion of his either; he consistently points out that the enjoyment of life is what God intends for people. In Ecclesiastes 2:24, he says, “There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it is from the hand of God.”
Life’s unfairness and seeming purposelessness shouldn’t hinder man’s pursuit of happiness. Immediately after discussing how twisted the world is, rewarding evil and punishing good, Solomon goes on to say in 8:15:
“So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.”
Our culture obsesses so much about prolonging our lives—diets, exercise, losing weight, cosmetic surgery—that we lose sight of how important it is to enjoy life. Solomon tells us it’s okay to enjoy life and it’s okay to accept your mortality. There’s nothing wrong with trying to be healthy, but we shouldn’t think it’s wrong or sinful to enjoy life, even if that means occasionally enjoying a food or drink that isn’t incredibly healthy.
In his book Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis called Ecclesiastes nihilistic and “anti-religious”, a “clear cold picture of man’s life without God.” Joy Lewis, in her classic, Smoke on the Mountain, spoke dismissively of Ecclesiastes’ author as a “materialist philosopher”. It’s hard to understand what brought the Lewises to this conclusion. God is constantly mentioned throughout the book as the one who provides whatever level of pleasure is available on earth.
It’s not so much a picture of a man’s life without God as it is a picture of a man disillusioned with life, trying to reconcile how the apparent meaninglessness of life can be reconciled with God’s benevolence and purposefulness. It is the rebellion of Adam and Eve that has brought on life’s miseries; it wasn’t God’s initial plan. In the beginning, there was only “a time to be born.” Now, thanks to sin, there is a “time to die”.
Solomon tells us to not merely enjoy whatever recreation we do. He goes so far as to tell us to enjoy our work. Labor is not a result of the fall of Adam and Eve. Even in paradise, they were told to tend the garden. Granted, thorns and thistles resulted from the fall, meaning that work will inherently be more difficult now that the world is corrupted. But work itself is something God wants us to enjoy, as Solomon frequently points out.
The right response to the seeming meaninglessness of life isn’t to throw your hands up, resigning yourself to a life of misery and futility. On the contrary, we are to enjoy whatever we can in life. We are to be responsible, hard-working people, not zombies sitting around wishing to die.
The ironic thing is that those who take a more “serious” view of life are often able to enjoy life more than those who try to fake their way through by being superficially happy. Once in an interview, C.S. Lewis said that the world is like a building full of people. Half the people believe the building is a hotel and the other half believes it is a prison. Those who believe it is a hotel are going to be constantly complaining about everything that is unsatisfactory and the poor “service.” Those who believe it is a prison are going to be frequently surprised at how comfortable it is, and they’ll find themselves able to appreciate every little thing that’s not simply terrible.
Similarly, if we approach life thinking we have a “right to happiness” and want everything to go our way, we’ll be like the disgruntled “hotel guests.” But if we approach life more solemnly, realizing the world is not intended to fulfill our every longing, we’ll find ourselves pleasantly surprised and able to enjoy the moments when life isn’t as bad as it could be.
What you run up against constantly in Ecclesiastes is the agony and meaningless of life accompanied by the goodness of God and how God gives us all that we have and wants us to enjoy it. This just further demonstrates that life is a mixture of joy and sorrow.
God allows us to spend our days in darkness with great frustration, affliction and anger, and yet he also keeps us occupied with gladness of heart. As Solomon says in 7:14, “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; yes, God has made the one side by side with the other, to the end that man should not find out anything after him.”
Believing in a good God forces us to account for all the pain, all the “bad times” in the world. Subtracting God from the equation, we not only have to account for all the pain, but also all the good. We lose our reference point entirely.
The reason we can enjoy life is because we have confidence that, contrary to how it often appears, life is ultimately not endless futility and randomness. Earthly pleasures were never even meant to satisfy our every longing. If we look to earthly pleasures—our careers, our possessions, our families—to complete us, they will let us down. A job, however good it is, if turned into a false god, will inevitably break your heart.
However, if you keep a proper perspective and do not look to earthly things to complete you, if you realize all that you have is transient, you can enjoy the simple pleasures in life, without expecting them to do what only God can do. A life that looks to entertainment, money, sex, or education to satisfy our deepest spiritual desires will inevitably be a “meaningless” life. But a life that is centered on God and obeying him will have a purpose, a purpose that includes the enjoyment of the simple pleasures in life.