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The Joy of Living

Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:1 - Rejoice, young man, during your childhood, and let your heart be pleasant during the days of your young manhood. And follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes. Yet know that God will bring you to judgment for all these things. So remove vexation from your heart and put away pain from your body, because childhood and the prime of life are fleeting. Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth . . .

Read all of Ecclesiastes!

Balance in the Christian life is not always easy and it is certainly not automatic for the growing Christian. There are always the temptations to go off on certain "do your own thing" tangents. And there are always the extreme positions that tend to draw you to one side or the other. Then, of course, there are those "helpful" Christians that keep telling you what they think you ought to be doing or not doing. Maintaining a proper balance is tough in the middle of all these tensions and conflicting options. Having fun and enjoying life is one of the most difficult areas in which to achieve balance as a Christian. If we're having too much fun and feeling too happy all the time, other Christians may accuse us of not taking life seriously. We may even put ourselves on a guilt trip because of this supposed over-indulgence in fun and happiness! But then if we're too sober and too serious all the time, our Christian friends begin preaching smiley-face messages at us. And in all seriousness, life may indeed begin to drag for us with no excitement and nothing to look forward to. You just can't seem to win! Achieving a proper balance in this area of living is hard. And the problem is not just in the mind. There are the very real dangers of self-indulgence on the one hand and discouragement or depression on the other if the right attitude toward having fun and enjoying life is not held and practiced.

The Book of Ecclesiastes may seem like an unlikely place to find guidelines for the proper attitude towards fun and happiness in life. Many Christians who read this book of Scripture for the very first time come away with somewhat of a depressed feeling because of the recurring "all is vanity" theme. However, Ecclesiastes has more to share than just the idea that everything is vanity or meaningless. In fact, this book has so much to say about happiness and delight in life that the theme of Ecclesiastes could be considered "The Joy of Living". Now it is certainly true that Ecclesiastes is not the most simple and straight-forward portion of Scripture to understand. For this reason there have been various approaches to the interpretation to this part of God's Word throughout the history of the Church. However, after the book has been read through several times, the overall message of Ecclesiastes seems to come through loud and clear. It is as follows: Without God in the picture, life is meaningless; with God in the picture, there can be joy in living. If God is not acknowledged and taken into account, then life "under the sun" is just one big zero. It doesn't matter what you are into--studies, styles, sex or stocks (1:12-2:11). Ultimately, without God, all life is vanity--empty, futile and meaningless. One has to be blind to miss this aspect of the message from Ecclesiastes. But surely the corollary is also found in this book of the Scripture. When God is acknowledged and reverenced and obeyed, life becomes meaningful; the believer can actually find happiness and enjoyment in living. In fact, Ecclesiastes tells us that this is one of God's gifts to man from his own hand--a reward to those who fear the Lord. (See 2:24-26, 3:12-13, 5:18-20 and 9:7-9.)

Although God allows His children to find happiness and joy in living, it does not always follow that we will therefore understand life completely or fathom all of God's ways. The Holy Spirit is careful to stress this point several times throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. For instance, in chapter 3:10-11 note that God has purposely made man finite in reference to comprehending eternal matters. But even though man is limited in his grasp of this universe and cannot figure out all of life's questions, the believer can rest in the knowledge that the Lord is in control of His creation and has an appointed and appropriate time for everything (3:1-11). Furthermore (3:12-13), we can enjoy the short life that God has given us on earth--in spite of life's enigmas and apparent contradictions and seeming meaninglessness. It is not wrong to laugh and have fun, to enjoy life and seek pleasure, as long as God and His guidelines for happiness are brought into the picture.

This, then, is the overall message of Ecclesiastes. All texts within the book should be read and understood in the context of this overall scheme. Before we mention some of the guidelines for happiness that God has given us, one other point about the interpretation of this book of Scripture should be stressed. Sometimes Solomon, the inspired author of this book, writes from the perspective of the first part of the book's thesis, namely that without God in the picture, all is meaningless. When these verses are taken out of the surrounding context and isolated from the overall message of the book, it can sound like the Preacher (1:1) is teaching untruth. For example, in chapter 3:19 we read that the fate of man and animals is the same, and that man has no advantage over the animal. Now we know from the rest of Scripture that the Bible does not teach this idea. But Ecclesiastes is not teaching such falsehood either. We don't have to look far in the surrounding context to see what is being taught here. Verse 17 clearly shows that the inspired teacher knows that man and animals are different and that man is going to be morally judged. But God has purposely tested man (3:18) by letting it appear that the destiny of men and beasts is the same. Only by revelation can we know the truth that the spirit of man does indeed ascend upward in contrast to that of the beast (3:21). This truth is also taught explicitly in chapter 12:7. So be especially careful in Ecclesiastes and make sure that the so-called difficult passages are not pulled out of context and interpreted apart from the perspective of the inspired writer. See Psalm 49:12 and 20 for a similar example from another inspired author.

Now what about those guidelines for enjoying life that God has included in Ecclesiastes? There are basically three, and they are listed together in the conclusion of the book (12:13-14): Fear God, keep His commandments and remember the coming judgment! These controls on our fun and pleasure do not just appear in the last two verses of the book, but pop up a number of times throughout Ecclesiastes. Besides the passages already listed, see chapter 5:1-7, 8:12-13, 11:9-10 and 12:1-7. In other words, you can "follow the impulses of your hearts and the desires of your eyes" (11:9a), but you must also remember the guideline of "know that God will bring you to judgment for all these things" (11:9b). You can live it up a little while you are young and have the chance (11:9-10) but you must "remember also your Creator" (12:1a). This will guard you from living it up too much! Remembering our Creator is especially important while we're young and in good health and have energies to dedicate, not just when we're old and falling apart (12:1b-7). So it's O.K. to have fun time on a weekend away from studies. It's O.K. to be happy and lighthearted while we barbecue a steak dinner with friends. And it's O.K. to take off the so-serious mask and laugh and crack up over some good jokes. It's O.K. to get into a line of work that you like. And it's O.K. to enjoy the pleasures of sex in marriage. All of these O.K.'s are gifts of God to man. But--fear God, keep His commandments and remember that our lives will be judged or reviewed (2 Corinthians 5:10) for all our attitudes and actions. The Lord knows our weaknesses and how easily we're tempted to abuse His wonderful gifts. Let us follow the guidelines so that the good "fun and games" of life are properly controlled. Remember also that God may purposely bring times of sorrow, times of testing and other less delightful times into our lives. Here the general attitude of being outwardly happy and enjoying life is certainly modified. Ecclesiastes takes these times into account, too. (See chapters 3:4 and 7:2-4, for example.)

Every book of Scripture must be understood in the light of the teaching of the whole Bible and Ecclesiastes is no exception, of course. For the growing Christian, the application of the guidelines of Ecclesiastes concerning the enjoyment of life must further take into account New Testament revelation. The overall message of Ecclesiastes is not changed in the New Testament. See 1 Timothy 6:17, for instance, and note how life is to be enjoyed as long as God and His guidelines stay in the picture. However, we also know from New Testament teaching that a Christian now has the privilege of giving up, for the sake of Christ, certain of God's gifts to mankind. A Christian student, for example, may give up a good, fun-filled weekend away from school to help organize the Christian outreach program on campus. A Christian athlete may give up the benefits of a professional career in sports to serve the Lord more effectively as a leader of a struggling ministry or the elder of a small church. A Christian young person may give up the joys of married life in order to give a life of undivided attention to the foreign mission field. Every growing Christian has the freedom to enjoy the rich supply of God's good gifts, but we also have the privilege of denying ourselves certain joys of life as the Lord calls us to particular areas of service for Him.

God is not a killjoy. The normal pattern of living which He desires for us includes happiness and enjoyment of the life He has given us. But there must be balance in this area of Christian life. Ecclesiastes, properly understood in the context of the whole Bible, gives us God's guidelines for living joyously.
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