Ecclesiastes: From the Hand of God
Published March 29, 2023
“There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.” Ecclesiastes 2:24-26
Throughout the second chapter of Ecclesiastes, Solomon has shown us firsthand the vanity of life. The pursuits of pleasure, greatness, and even wisdom do not reverse the effects of the fall. This discovery first led Solomon to despair, but now he presents an alternative, a better way of living life. This is the first glimmer of hope, or the “the first respite” (Derek Kidner) from the vanity theme. What is this better way of living? It is to “eat, drink, and find enjoyment in [one’s] toil” (2:24). Since this is the first of six such call to enjoy life throughout the book, this passage is a critical juncture for interpreting Ecclesiastes rightly. First, I will address a common mistakes in interpreting this passage, then we will explore the correct meaning and its implications.
The Incorrect Interpretation
Many mistakenly read the call to enjoy life as a resigned attempt to find some consolation in an otherwise meaningless existence. On the surface, “Eat and drink and find enjoyment” sounds like the hedonistic motto “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” that Paul criticizes in 1 Cor. 15:32, especially since it follows the phrase “there is nothing better for a person.” However, we must look past the superficial similarities and consider the entirety of what is being said. First, there is an acknowledgement that eating and drinking and enjoyment comes from the hand of God, which is not something mere pleasure-seekers normally acknowledge. Second, there is a distinction made in this passage between the believer and the unbeliever (the one who pleases God and the sinner), which indicates that there is something deeper going on.
The Correct Interpretation
What then is the correct interpretation? First, it is helpful to identify what is being contrasted in this passage. Given that much of the chapter has been about the inability of any worldly pursuit to bring lasting satisfaction, many readers expect the contrast to be between vain attempts to find satisfaction in worldly pursuits and true satisfaction in God Himself. People are expecting something along the lines of the first question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is the chief end of man? The chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” However, that is not exactly what is happening here. Rather than contrasting sources of ultimate satisfaction (God vs. worldly pursuits), the passage is contrasting how unbelievers and believers approach life. This passage is not a treatise on how to become a Christian, but it shows how a Christian lives in relationship to earthly goods.
The sinner’s (read: unbeliever’s) approach to life is a never ending cycle of “gathering and collecting” (2:26). They are always chasing after worldly pursuits in search of lasting gain. Like the foolish rich man, their chief concern is tearing down their barns and building bigger ones to store their possessions, not recognizing that one day God will say, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” (Luke 12:20). Their possessions will be left behind for someone else, and thus their endless gathering and collecting is a “vanity and a striving after wind” (2:26).
The believer, or “the one who pleases God” (2:26), does not pursue worldly goods in search of meaning, but receives all things from the hand of God (2:24). The believer recognizes that no enjoyment can come apart from Him. The believer worships the Giver, not His gifts, and is therefore able to enjoy both. The unbeliever strives after “wisdom, knowledge, and enjoyment” while never finding them, not realizing that God gives them freely to His people. The paradox of hedonism is that those who seek pleasure for its own sake will never find it, because true enjoyment only comes from God. Incidentally, the passage not only destroys hedonism, but also asceticism. Ascetics believe they must deprive themselves of all earthly enjoyment, not recognizing that all (non-sinful) things, in their proper place, can be enjoyed to the glory of God. “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Ecclesiastes will have more to say on the differences between Christians and non-Christians, especially as the theme of the fear of the Lord is developed later in the book, but for now, we are given an alternative to the quest for gain.
Christian, are you caught up in the same rat race as the world, looking to earthly goods for ultimate satisfaction? Are you focused on the Giver of all good things or on the gifts themselves? All attempts to find satisfaction apart from God will fail and must fail, for God did not create enjoyment to be and end in itself. “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Matthew 6:33