Saturday, June 20, 2020

Time and Chance (41)

Bible readers whose systematic theology requires them to downplay or overlook the distinctions scripture makes between the Old and New Covenants are faced with more than the occasional conundrum in interpreting Ecclesiastes. And yet any number of older commentators read and exposit the book as if its primary value is as directly-applicable advice to modern Christians.

It most surely is not.

Ecclesiastes 9:7-8 — Eating and Drinking with Joy
“Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.”
After the better part of two chapters on the subject of death, its unfairness and its finality, the Preacher sums up his theme with some advice: enjoy life.

As pointed out in the last couple of posts, there are times when the writer of Ecclesiastes counsels the precise opposite of what a Christian ought to do. This is because he is not writing to Christians. Rather, he is reckoning “under the sun”, in the absence of divine revelation, using his senses to make his decisions for him. He does not even make use of the revelation to which he did have access in his day, including the Law of Moses. We do not hold this deficiency against the Preacher; we recognize he lacked all kinds of information which we have been freely given since. But we must acknowledge that he is hobbled and hampered in a way we are not. A Christian characteristically lives by faith in God’s fully-revealed word, walking by the indwelling Spirit of God.

You can’t beat that.

Explaining Ecclesiastes on “Gospel Principles”

But whenever commentators fail to make allowance for the writer’s adopted perspective, they seem to end up folding, spindling and mutilating the Preacher’s words to fit them into a life-program for which they were never designed. Thus, Robert Hawker says concerning verse 7:
“There is a great beauty in this verse; if explained upon gospel principles. If a soul be accepted in Jesus, he may well eat the bread both of body and soul, with a cheerful heart. In Jesus, everything is blessed: and Jesus blesses everything.”
But this is precisely my point: verse 7 cannot be “explained upon gospel principles” any more than any other verse in Ecclesiastes. Its writer explicitly excludes virtually the entire spiritual world from consideration; how much more the glories of the gospel! Thus the bread, wine, oil and white garments may make for a nice analogy or (somewhat forced) illustration of a New Testament principle, but these are not the verse’s meaning. Solomon is speaking quite literally of earthly food, the fruit of the vine and the olive tree, and of dressing up for dinner. While there is no doubt that “In Jesus, everything is blessed: and Jesus blesses everything,” the Preacher’s original readers could not possibly have considered such an explanation of his words.

What then is he saying? Simply that in view of the brevity of life, it is appropriate to live it to the fullest; to go about both work and pleasure unstintingly. This is God’s design. Solomon is not counseling either gluttony or drunkenness, but rather a celebratory spirit and an appreciation of the good things in life when they come to us in the appropriate context.

Eat, Drink and Be Merry

James Coffman’s commentary responds to the passage like so:
“This, of course, is Epicureanism. ‘Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’ ”
But I do not believe this is the case. The Preacher’s rationale for enjoying life is not Epicurean. It is quite God-conscious. Eating and drinking with a celebratory spirit is not something to be engaged in because “tomorrow we die”, though that may be the case, but rather because “God has already approved what you do”. He does not mean to say that God auto-approves everything we do in life, of course, but rather that God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy”, as Paul told Timothy. That statement holds true in any dispensation.

The hedonist lives for pleasure. That is not the Bible’s approach under any covenant. Even under the Old Covenant, pleasure is seen as an occasional and joyous consequence of hard work, rather than as an end in itself. Life is not always pleasurable, but if God has given us pleasure, it is incumbent on us to receive it gratefully rather than rejecting it as intrinsically frivolous or inappropriate.

Ecclesiastes 9:9-10 — Meeting Life Head-On
“Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.”
Verse 9 restates this principle. The words “because that is your portion in life” are another way of saying “God has already approved”. Full enjoyment of God’s blessings is appropriate. Self-indulgence and excess are not. We should not confuse the two things.

The Preacher’s reference to “the wife whom you love” obviously does not exclude women or single men from the responsibility to live fully and appreciatively in every moment we have been given by God. Like Samuel, some of the Lord’s prophets married and had children. We do not get any hint that either Elijah or Elisha did. If they were indeed single men, their lives were marked by a level of devoted service to God that has its own rewards. We must remind ourselves that the Preacher is not addressing every possible exceptional situation which may occur, but speaking more generally to the human condition. We should take from his advice whatever we may in our own circumstances.

The Preacher finishes with encouraging his readers to approach every aspect of life head-on: “do it with your might”, not tentatively or half-heartedly. Do not be a spectator; jump in at the deep end. Work hard, love deeply, enjoy fully. His reasoning is that the earthly blessings we have been given are only ours for a limited time. They have their place, and then they are gone, and the grave swallows up all opportunity for either labor or celebration, “for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol”.

Again, this is not a veiled reference to annihilationism, nor should we imagine on the basis of this statement that the dead are not conscious. Luke 16 plainly says that is not the case. What the Preacher is saying here is that our earthly lives are where we store up knowledge and wisdom, where we labor, reflect and learn. There are no farms, construction sites, libraries or universities in the grave. Men do not enter into new relationships or build empires there.

For that matter, it is unclear whether in Hades there is even the awareness of the presence of others who are in the same state. The repository of the wicked dead may turn out to be a very lonely place.


  1. Finally, here it is. After you have read it and understand it, why don't you let us know how the proof of God's existence works.

    1. I must admit to mild curiosity. Science cannot disprove God's existence, but I'm not sure science can formally prove such a thing either. It can offer strong evidence which points that way, but "proof" is a very subjective thing. What constitutes proof to me may not constitute proof to you, as anyone who has ever sat on a jury and debated the issues with other people who all received the same evidence will tell you.

  2. Actually there are pretty solid proofs for God's existence 5 of which by Aquinas. Dawkins who tried to debunk them was going up against a philosopher as a biologist and was found sorely lacking trying to work outside his disciplines. He failed by rigorous philosophical standards. See here: