Ecclesiastes 8-9: More than enjoyment

The Daily Maverick recently published an excellent (though expletive-filled) report about the difficulties that informal settlements such as Masiphumele have in facing Coronavirus, particularly when there is no food, six people to a room, and the government forbids you to go outside. As the journalist was leaving Masi, police and military vehicles arrived and began, seemingly without provocation, to beat residents with heavy wooden clubs.

The expletives in this article appropriately express rage both at the inhumanity of the police who “made an example” of people who are so desperately poor as to have little choice but to transgress curfews in the first place, as well as at the middle class who sit so comfortably and yet complain about minor inhibitions to our convenience.

In view of such atrocities and inequalities in our society, it is hard to know what to make of passages such as Ecclesiastes 9:7-10, which seemingly encourage us to enjoy the good things of life if we find ourselves able. We’re told to eat our bread with joy, and drink our wine with a merry heart, to dress in white, anoint our heads with oil, and to enjoy our time with our spouses. 

On the one hand, the wisdom of these verses is straight-forward. Being able to enjoy one’s food, drink, and relationships, if God gives you space, is a great blessing. Many (both poor and rich) do not find themselves able to do so.

On the other hand, the writer of Ecclesiastes does not disguise the difficulties that he has with such blessings as the best that can be had in life. Verse 9 acknowledges the vanity of it all and the toil that is never far away. Verse 10 is even more severe: Enjoy these things, he says, because there’ll be none of that in Sheol, which is where you are going. Furthermore, this passage is bookended with other concessions that deny the simplicity of simple pleasures. In 8:17, he says, “Then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.” God may permit you to enjoy some good things in life or give you mostly bad. Either way, the Preacher denies that anyone is able to know what God is doing. Ecclesiastes 9:18 praises wisdom, but recognises that sin ruins everything. So, perhaps your good times are God’s gift to you. Perhaps they are the fruits of wickedness that has destroyed the good of others.

If this isn’t meant as a provocation on the Preacher’s part, he has certainly given us reasons to feel conflicted about whatever good we’re trying to enjoy.

The difference Easter makes

The writer of Ecclesiastes seems to have been living in exceptionally hard social circumstances, and at a point in history in which God’s activity was hard to discern and faith in his promises was hard to sustain.

Today marks the ultimate day in which faith in God’s promises was most remote. Jesus was dead, and hopes with him. A week before, God’s promises of a new Davidic king seemed to be on the verge of fulfilment. Yesterday, this king was executed like a slave. Only tomorrow would things become clear again. Today, the disciples were left in hopelessness.

We don’t see every aspect of God’s plan. In many ways, his activity remains largely shrouded from us We may live many Easter Saturdays. However, the crowning moment of God’s work has been made clear to us, and it gives us vision to which the Preacher was not privileged.

Easter makes sense of our suffering. We do not need to share the Preacher’s view of death as an end that makes all of living incomprehensible. A life that toils in service of the Dying King does not terminate in futility. There is hope in the defeat of death.

Moreover, Easter underlines our commission. Sin does ruin everything, but Easter proclaims the death of sin and calls us to a life of service. It remains true that it is good for us to enjoy the good that God gives us. However, God calls us to be agents of good too.

Our country is yet to be struck with the full force of COVID-19, but traumas of our own making are being felt by the poor. We need more in this country who make it their calling to follow Easter’s pattern of self-sacrificial service of others.

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