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“Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart” (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“His whole body was filled with delight. The aroma was so good, so tempting. It merited a closer look. At the jar’s edge, the scent overwhelmed him. He settled upon it and gorged himself with sticky sweetness. But then he could not pull away. Although he beat his wings until they buzzed, the ointment clung to him and drew him down to silence.
“Similarly, Solomon’s pursuits and experiences drew him down like a fly stuck in the proverbial ointment (Ecclesiastes 10:1). Though he had greater wisdom than all, and greater wealth than most, in the end he could not enjoy them. Ecclesiastes records how Solomon viewed life and its pleasures as a trap that brings deadly silence.”[i]
But our text reveals a change of mind and heart in Solomon, a growth in wisdom. These three verses are a key to understanding the entire book. As all his efforts to find satisfaction and contentment in life fall short, Solomon discovers that only in God does life have meaning. Without Him, nothing satisfies. True pleasure comes only when we acknowledge and revere God.
With this theme in mind and recognizing the whole book revolves around this theme, it makes sense to trace Solomon’s train of thought up to this point. As Solomon viewed the fallen world, he saw that it was a tragedy and a puzzle. Through his own observations, experiments, and insights (wrongly construed as wisdom), he sought to make sense of the world, trying to produce some overarching framework to accommodate everything he saw, both good and bad.
Solomon failed miserably in this endeavor. If anything, he found that the world was in a far worse state than he had ever imagined. Human beings, he realized can’t even figure out life’s problems much less solve those problems. Human mind-power and human effort, even in someone as wise and learned as he, are not up to such a gargantuan task.
Ecclesiastes looks at that whole thought process in retrospect. By the time Solomon wrote this book, God had helped him learn true wisdom, and true wisdom is the fear of God. The fear of God is this: Once a person is overwhelmed by life’s difficulties and his own total depravity and incapability, he realizes how utterly helpless and hopeless it all is. Only then can he turn to the one last alternative: the triune God, the Maker of heaven and earth, who would also send His Son to redeem sinful humanity and His Spirit to sanctify and lead His redeemed people.
The fear of God means turning everything over to Him, trusting that God is all-knowing and merciful. The fear of God means trusting that God will take care of, in His own time and in His own way, absolutely everything—life’s problems, life’s disappointments, life’s sadness, life’s apparent meaninglessness, life’s total sin and depravity, and yes, life’s outcome. God knows. God cares. God does it all.
Which brings us to our text, where the critical issue is this: if God does it all, what is left for His people to do? The answer is an incredibly bitter pill for human pride to swallow: Not much! If we wonder how we might somehow help God, the answer is that we can do absolutely nothing to contribute to our salvation or even to our own happiness.[ii]
But to prevent us from being crushed by boredom, sitting on our hands while He does everything, God tells us through Ecclesiastes: “Here are some things you can do: Rejoice! Enjoy the process! Enjoy the gifts I give you, from the biggest eternal gifts down to the smallest gifts of daily bread. Have fun in the simple tasks I assign to you. You’ll get so busy doing useful things that you won’t have time to worry. On the other hand, trusting Me doesn’t take any time at all.”[iii]
With such a childishly simple message, it is no wonder that biblical scholars and interpreters have such a challenging time understanding Ecclesiastes and consider its message obscure. Interpreters either get it or they don’t get it. If the book’s theme, as it is laid out in these three verses, escapes the interpreter, the whole book is bound to be closed to him. He’ll grapple with the issues of Ecclesiastes like Solomon grappled with the issues of life and getting nowhere.
The wrestling itself may seem to make at least a minimal contribution to God’s plan for the world, but the interpreter must always find his resting place in the same place as Solomon did: in the grace of God alone. For the Lutheran perspective, the right interpretation of Ecclesiastes distills down to this question: Do we believe in sola gratia, grace alone, or not?
The simple activities of eating, drinking, and enjoying one’s work require very little theologizing. And that’s the point. Enjoying the bare essentials of life and performing the most menial of tasks are the “lot” God has assigned. There is no thought of a niche a person carves out for himself. The “lot” is a microscopic part of the whole, which is in the hands of God Himself (Ecclesiastes 3:11). It is made smaller still in the knowledge that the human portion is entirely a matter of receiving, while God, who works all things, does all the giving.
The human portion becomes even smaller because of the time limitation placed upon it. God carefully measures out the days of each person’s life. Such planning takes places prior to one’s birth (Psalm 139:16). The introduction of this time factor can elicit two reactions. On the one hand, the unbeliever, like all people, has eternity in his mind (Ecclesiastes 3:11), but he realizes his days are numbered. Death looms on the horizon as something unknown, final, and cruelly abrupt. What deep sadness there is: he lives out his life in agony, and yet he is desperate to prolong the agony for as long as possible for he fears there is nothing else ahead. On the other hand, the one who fears God views the end of his days as a joyful return to the Lord (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Our final day marks the end of sorrow and the drying of ours tears. In the meantime, that prospect produces a joy that carries through our earthly sojourn. By faith, we join our Lord in the countdown of faith, numbering our days with a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12).
Life is God’s gift, as is the enjoyment of life. The fact that God has chosen to give us anything at all is reason enough for us to rejoice. We know our place, our “lot,” and are completely content with that. No matter how small the gift, we know that God has given Himself along with the gift. And, knowing this, we can enjoy something as simple as a piece of bread and a cup of wine, a full day of labor, and a few minutes sitting on the front porch watching the sun go down. Knowing God is the Giver makes for our enjoyment.
Solomon paints a happier picture than in the previous verses. He shows us a household where godliness and contentment reign in place of greed and discontent. He portrays a child of God, a believer, like you or me. Although labor remains toilsome for us, we can find enjoyment in it. God enables us to enjoy our possessions and find joy in our work. We accept our lot in life—our talents, opportunities, and possessions. Our work is not a frenzied attempt to pile up riches or accolades. We work because it is the lot God has given us in life. In the words of St. Paul, we do “all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). We try to make the best possible use of our lives as a way of saying thanks to God for the gift of life and for His many other blessings.
Solomon tells us that we “will not much remember the days of [our] life because God keeps [us] occupied with joy in [our] heart” (Ecclesiastes 5:20). God controls and directs the history of the world because it is His world. Meanwhile, we human beings are clearly placed on the sidelines. Regarding the past, it is over and done; no one can go back and fix it. Besides, people can’t even remember how bad the past was. God, in His grace, has granted a kind of amnesia about the past. Like the case of a mother who cannot remember the pains of childbirth, God erases the ugliness of the past to the point that those days start to look like the good old days (Ecclesiastes 7:10).
In the present with all its problems, God induces an amnesia of another sort. He keeps people so busy that they have no time to worry or get depressed about life in general. As God takes care of the bigger, overarching problems of life, He gives all people little problems and challenges that monopolize their time day by day. In other words, every person in the world must let God perform His business out of sheer personal necessity.
This situation is further enhanced in the life of the trusting child of God. Our preoccupation is mingled with joy. Whereas the unbeliever must let God be God because he has no choice, we believers are only too glad to turn everything over to God. We know that our God—omnipotent, wise, and gracious—is equal to the task. We also know that God is doing the job, that God does make everything work together for good (Romans 8:28), including that lot that God has assigned to us. We know that our work and daily bread are somehow part of God’s overall big picture. We work joyfully and eat without worry.
Numbed to the past and blissfully naïve about the present—the ego of any would-be theologian is bound to recoil in disgust at the thought of this utter condescending, this patronizing of the part of glory. As the theologian in search of glory starts to unravel the secrets of the universe, God tells him in effect, “Go have a cookie and run out and play.” How degrading!
Will you find this humiliating? You really won’t if you’ve fully grasped the message of Ecclesiastes. Human depravity is total, and the world is entirely hopeless. That being the case, who better to patronize us than God the Father and who better to condescend to us that His Son, Jesus Christ? Condescension is absurd only to those who figure to meet God half-way. Humiliation before God is only repugnant to those who retain their pride. God’s patronizing is only degrading to those who resist being His children. But it makes sense to those whose glory and wisdom is the cross of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:18-31).
Where does one find gladness of heart and the kingdom of God and His righteousness? They come only from listening to God’s Word. The Bible alone tells us of God’s love in Christ the Savior—promised in the Old Testament and fulfilled in the New. To have Christ is to possess the highest wisdom, greatest joy. and most priceless treasure.
This is the simple life: enjoying God’s blessings. Living as a child of God in your Baptism through daily contrition and repentance. Coming to the Lord’s Table often where Christ feeds you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Trusting in Christ’s Word of absolution.
Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] The Lutheran Study Bible, Edited by Edward A Englebrecht, et al. 2009. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, p. 1048.
[ii] Devotion on Ecclesiastes 5:10–20 | Proper 24 – Year B – Concordia Publishing House, https://blog.cph.org/read/church-year/proper-24-year-b.
[iii] Bollhagen, James (2011). Ecclesiastes Concordia Commentary: A Theological Exposition of Sacred Scripture. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, p. 210