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Ecclesiastes and seizing the day (1)

Ecclesiastes is like a flavorful piece of tough meat in the sense that it only yields many of its truths after you’ve worked with it for a while. As others have suggested, there is something fitting about this as a book dealing with many of life’s difficulties is itself difficult. The style suits the subject matter.

I’ve come to view the book as being like another wisdom book—Job. Job has his three friends and together the four of them engage in extended conversations where some truth is spoken as well as some untruth before God sets them all straight in the end (chapters 38-42). Following Dillard & Longman III, as well as Shepherd, I think that’s the way we’re to look at Ecclesiastes. The main section of the book (from 1:2-12:8) features the teachings of Qoheleth. While there are nuggets of truth in his words that can easily be overlooked and underappreciated, there are things that aren’t correct (3:18-21 for example).

The writer of the book who introduces Qoheleth in 1:1, begins his conclusion in 12:9 as he speaks to someone he calls “my son” (v. 12) who could be just that or it could be a figure of speech for a student or disciple. Regardless, he has presented Qoheleth’s teaching to him, which is representative of what he refers to as “the words of the wise” and “their collected sayings” (v. 11). He commends Qoheleth’s efforts (v. 10) and intent (“The Preacher sought to find delightful words and write words of truth correctly” – NASB).  Qoheleth and others like him share words that are painful “and further, from these, my son, be warned” (v. 12 – Young’s Literal Translation) that you could easily spend the rest of your life studying such things and in the end have nothing but exhaustion to show for it. Rather than be overwhelmed by their speculation it is better to anchor in God’s revelation and find meaning and purpose by following Him (12:13-14).

The “carpe diem” passages in Ecclesiastes (2:24-26, 3:12-13, 22, 5:18-20, 8:15, 9:7-9) are usually viewed from one of two perspectives depending on what you understand the overall thrust of the book to be. If you believe Qoheleth is writing to tell people how to have joy in life then you will probably see these texts as the mountain tops of a book depicting an otherwise bleak existence. If you understand the book as chronicling Qoheleth’s fruitless search for meaning in life, then they come across as a consolation prize in his failed mission.

Although I view Ecclesiastes more from the second perspective, I think the carpe diem passages contain kernels of wisdom for us if we are willing to hear them and work with them. They need to be distilled from Qoheleth’s jaded perspective. For example, note how in the last of these passages how he tells us to "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. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun" (9:9). Not really anyone's idea of a big finish--except maybe Qoheleth. Still there is treasure to be found.

One jewel is that he attributes finding joy with recognizing life is a gift God gives us to enjoy. This principle is present in all of the passages. It’s also reflected in 1 Timothy 6:17 where Paul speaks of “God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” There’s more to all of these texts of course, but what I want to work with is the basic truth that life is a gift from God and we honor Him by finding joy in that gift. 

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