The Wisdom of Joy (by John Frye)

Wisdom of Joy: Ecclesiastes- Part 2

A common view of the Book of Ecclesiastes goes something like this: “I think Ecclesiastes is just human wisdom, the best that people can find ‘under the sun.’ It’s just human ideas, not God’s, what with its hedonism, telling us to ‘eat, drink and be merry.’ It is a wisdom beneath Christian dignity.” Notes in the old Scofield Bible promote this misguided view. C.I. Scofield’s understanding of the phrase “under the sun” is a sad interpretive error. The phrase is simply a Hebrew idiom for location, i.e., “under the sun” means “on the earth.” The phrase carries no moral or theological overtones.

We considered the “meaningless” theme in the previous post and concluded that Qoheleth was being not pessimistic, but realistic. Let’s engage the “enjoyment” or the “eat, drink, and be merry” theme. Consider Qoheleth’s repetitive calls to the enjoyment of life:

“A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work (2:24). That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God (3:13). Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot (5:18). 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 (8:15). Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun— all your meaningless days (9:7-9). However many years a man may live, let him enjoy them all. …Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth” (11:8-9).

Unquestionably Qoheleth commends eating and drinking and finding joy in life. The question is this: Does Ecclesiastes promote a hedonistic life? The answer is “No.” Why? Qoheleth probed the limits and bankruptcy of hedonism as he describes his “experiment” with unbridled pleasure (Eccles. 2:1-11). Notice Qoheleth’s summary comments: “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure” and “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” His foray into hedonism was meaningless. Whatever the repetitive “enjoyment” theme is, it is not a call to hedonism. Hedonism is seeking pleasure as the highest or ultimate good.

The enjoyment theme celebrates simple gifts from God that help us on our journey in this meaningless existence. If you trip over the word “meaningless,” please read the previous post. Qoheleth commends finding deep joy in daily pleasures—eating and drinking at our meals, enjoying the pleasures of marriage (if we are married) or companionship with others if we’re not. This is wise. God made us to experience joy, and joy is a worthy experience, a skilled experience in our otherwise wearying life. There is a time to laugh, a time to dance.

Behind the wisdom writer’s call to joy is a deep-seated belief in a theology of celebration. The God of Israel called his people to joy. God’s people were to eat and drink and rejoice in his presence (when they brought tithes to the LORD); being told even to buy “fermented” or “strong drink” (Deuteronomy 14:26) Nehemiah told the people not to weep and mourn, but to eat and drink, “for the joy of the LORD is our strength.” Jesus told stories of a joyful, party-throwing shepherd who found his lost sheep, and a celebrating woman who found her lost coin, and a village chief who as a father calls for a city-wide feast when his lost son came home. There was “music and dancing” (Luke 15).

We sorely need a theology of joy and celebration, especially because some in the church still define Christian holiness by what Christians cannot do. Years ago I got a call from a local Bible school reporting that their students could no longer attend our church because we held a square dance during the Fall season. Are drabness and dullness really next to holiness? I don’t know where these ideas crept into the faith, but they certainly did not come from the Bible, from Qoheleth, or from Jesus. We discover Qoheleth to be very astute, giving us rock-solid wisdom. “The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one Shepherd” (12:11); our party-attending, joy-bringing Shepherd.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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