Andrew Abernethy is an Associate Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College. You can follow him at Twitter @AbernethyOTProf.
“Let us eat, drink, and be merry.” We should follow this advice. Yet, if you are like me, emotions of guilt flood moments of joy during this indefinite stay-at-home as thousands lose their lives.
Thanks to Dave Matthews, many Gen X and Millennials learned “let us eat, drink, and be merry” from his hit song “Tripping Billies.” Few realize that this expression comes from the Bible, and it can offer us important guidance during the time of Coronavirus. No, I don’t think you should live like a hillbilly who is tripping on acid. Dave Matthews has the right words, but endorses the wrong meaning from a biblical perspective.
In the Bible, verses like “Let us eat, drink, and be merry” have two different meanings.
Isaiah and Paul have a Tripping Billies understanding of “let us eat, drink, and be merry.”
In Isaiah 22, Jerusalem is under siege. Its people are trapped behind crumbling walls. A ravenous army sits outside its gates. Jerusalem should be lamenting and calling out to God, but they are doing just the opposite. They’ve rolled out the kegs, are barbequing beef and lamb, and are having a blast. They are thinking: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (22:13). The refrain on the lips of those in Jerusalem reflects a hedonistic nihilism—life is pointless and death is inevitable so let’s enjoy one last hurrah while we can. As you might suspect, God does not take kindly to this outlook.
COVID-19 presents the world with a crisis different from Jerusalem’s, but a crisis nonetheless. A common hope for evangelical Christians—myself included—is that this season of crisis will result in many non-Christians coming to faith. Mantras like “the gospel cannot be quarantined” or calls to “pray for revival” populate my social media feed. After all, “there are no atheists in fox holes,” so many are searching for God like never before, right? I hope this is the case, but the prophets of Israel, and the book of Revelation, offer another vantage point. Instead of softening hearts towards God, crises expose and intensify what is truly in the heart. For some, this will amount to a final resolute turning away from God, as we see in the people of Jerusalem in the 8th–6th centuries BC. If death is coming, let’s go out partying.
Paul acknowledges that hedonistic nihilism has an appeal, but on one condition: “If the dead are not raised, ‘let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Corinthians 15:32). Why devote your life to living in light of Christ’s teachings if he didn’t actually raise from the dead? Paul had met the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, so hedonistic nihilism was not an option.
As I write, I am aware that “Tripping Billies” is a real temptation to many of our hearts—Christians included (those in Jerusalem were the people of God after all). Escape the pain, escape the fear, escape the sense of inevitability. Let’s drown ourselves in what brings us the greatest short term pleasure—Netflix binging, social media roaming, sports, erotic fantasy, drugs, chocolate, you fill in the blank. My hunch is that self-isolation is making us less moral, or at least more creative in our immorality. Yet, if Christ has risen from the dead, as billions will celebrate on Sunday, Tripping Billies is not the right answer in the face of crisis.
The Wisdom of Pleasure
An undeniable Christian response to the current crisis is lament, as N. T. Wright has expressed (though this led to some misunderstanding). Without denying this, we should also “eat, drink, and be merry” during this time, especially on Easter. How can I say this after hearing what Isaiah and Paul had to say about it? I am following the wisdom offered to us by the Teacher in Ecclesiastes.
The Teacher isn’t naïve. His head isn’t buried in the sand. His eyes are wide open to the absurdities under the sun. Bad things happen to the righteous. Good things happen to the wicked. Injustice abounds. Wealth can vanish. Death comes to the unsuspecting. So, how should we live in a world that doesn’t make sense? The Teacher offers us three answers.
First, it is okay to acknowledge and wrestle with what doesn’t make sense in the world. The Teacher models this for us throughout the book. We can lament and give voice to those things that don’t add up in life. This cruel, perplexing virus is ravaging this world; we should not hide from that.
Second, we should continue to fear God and keep his commandments (12:13–14). We may have no answers. Our souls may feel beat up. But the wisest course is to continue to revere God and live according to his ways. This would include loving our neighbor as ourselves, as the likes of Albert Mohler, Laura Turner, and Jim Wallis advocate.
Third, and our main point, the Teacher says: “I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be merry” (8:15). This is not a call to adopt the Tripping Billies mentality. Here is what is different about the Teacher’s statement. The call to eat, drink, and be merry doesn’t stem from a desire to hide from life and/or God. Instead, the enjoyment of food, drink, work, and one’s spouse (9:9) is a radical affirmation of the goodness of life and the God who gives good gifts when all seems bleak.
Earlier in Ecclesiastes, the Teacher says: “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?” (2:24–25). One way a person can live wisely during COVID-19 is to receive the pleasures of eating, drinking, working, and intimacy with one’s spouse as gifts from God to enjoy in a world that may not make sense from our vantage point. Of course, these gifts within creation are just examples of the abundant avenues of joy granted you by the Creator.
If the Teacher can endorse the wisdom of enjoying a nice meal before Christ came, how much more can we delight in these good, created gifts knowing that death has been defeated in Christ.
When will the suffering end? When will our loved ones not die in isolation? When will the fear subside? When will the indefinite stay-at-home order end? How long will we scramble to get Instacart slots? Will Easter next year allow churches and extended families to come together? Will we have jobs when it’s all said and done? What will life look like after the virus passes? We do not know. We can continue to lament. Yet, especially on Easter and along the way, let us cherish opportunities to eat, drink, and be merry as gifts from God. No guilt in receiving gifts.