So far, the picture presented by the Preacher is pretty depressing. It is so negative that we have to be on guard not to get caught up in the gloom ourselves. We do this by continuing to remember that Solomon is presenting an under the sun view of life rather than a life centered in the life of God, a life that has been redeemed from despair in this life and life to come by His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
The Preacher has just finished a bitter complaint about the uselessness and futility of all his hard work which included the works of mind and hands, although it was his slaves, servants, and fellow Israelites who actually did most of the work. And not we come to one of those refreshing passages in Ecclesiastes. What is stated here is not likely to challenge us who are Christians because it agrees with what we now think. The Preacher notes that we ought to make the best of life as a gift from God. This is reasonably orthodox other than even our labor itself is the gift of God and not of ourselves. At least it sounds so much more positive and useful to us. First of all, the Preacher tells us to take joy in eating, and drinking and the labors of our hands. Solomon rightly knows that these are truly the gift of God. It is God who is the source of all joy, a joy in all things. In this he sounds like the Apostle Paul. Has the Preacher found religion?
If we are to examine this text carefully, we would have to conclude that the answer for Solomon was, “No!” He does not write as though this was his experience at all, especially when we take what he says here in context of what he has just said and will say later. He speaks like a reprobate. He saw others with this joy. But it did not seem personal. In fact he speaks as though he was cursed. Why does God bless others with the gift of being able to enjoy life and not him? After all, no one had ever worked harder to find joy in life than Solomon. To these who experienced the joy of God, it was as if they never worked for it at all. So the Preacher is making a complaint against the arbitrariness of God who has not been fair. If we do not see this attitude, we will misread the text.
The Scripture tells us that Solomon amassed great wealth. We also know that God gave this to Solomon in addition to wisdom because Solomon asked for wisdom and not wealth. But here he acts as if he earned all this wealth himself. And the proof of his despair is that he accuses God of giving him the task of the wicked, to amass great wealth so that it could be given to whoever God pleases to give it to. Solomon felt that God was redistributing the wealth that he had himself amassed, not regarding that he had been gifted with it by God. This is true under the sun thinking. He knows he is a sinner. And he knows that he is very distant from God. So he concludes that because God is going to redistribute the labor of his hands to those who are not worthy or at least as worthy as himself. Therefore, he concludes with the same despairing cry he echoes throughout the book that his wicked work that he thinks God gave him to do is futile chasing after the wind.
Now that we see the text in its context, we are in a position to learn from it. It is true enough that God is the source of all joy. We as Christians know by Paul that we can even rejoice in our tribulations because God works out all things for good to those who love him, who “are the called after his purpose”. We also are taught by Scripture and by the Westminster-Shorter catechism to give thanks to god for all that we think and do. So we can read out Christian theology into this text and make something good out of it.
The question I would ask is: “How does the worldly man whose life is controlled by things under the sun think about such a passage?” If we are going to engage the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we will need to address the question. Sometime we are unaware that the world thinks about things a lot differently than we do. We assume we have the Bible and our theological terms in common. But is this a correct assumption? If we feel we are the elect, then we take joy in that God provides in all things for us. We can even take this to an extreme as they do in the health and wealth gospel that God is spoiling the goods of the Egyptians to give it to us. We sometimes forget the admonition of Paul that we will indeed reign with him, but there is a prerequisite, if we suffer with Him. We are called to earthly tribulation before heavenly glory, and we would do well to remember that.
I would suggest that the world would not get the same message from this text. This is why we need to look at this text from the under the sun context it is in rather than in our Christian worldview. The world would see our claims as being those of a twisted hyper-Calvinism. God in this view does what He pleases. He saves who He will, condemns who He will. He assigns some in this view to evil tasks as though God is the source of evil. So if we were to take the Christian interpretation of this text, which is all right to a degree when taken in context of believers and the analogy of Scripture, we will alienate those to whom we proclaim the good news.
We must understand that the ability to receive the Gospel and understand it is truly the gift of God. So we do need to keep this in mind when we witness for Christ to a world mired under the sun. The text does reveal where the common ground is. The Preacher admits he is a sinner. God has put this into everyone’s heart. This is where we start. What we have in common is that we too were sinners. We have been saved by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. We still live in an under the sun world, but we have by God’s grace received a light brighter than the sun which has dispelled the gloom of night.
So we must start with our evangelism where the sinner actually is and not where he might perceive himself to be. He or she is not just frustrated and broken. These are the symptoms of sin and rebellion against God. We must first diagnose and cure the disease, then the symptoms will take care of themselves. A patient may come in to the doctor complaining of pain in the abdomen. Suppose the doctor prescribed aspirin or some stronger pain reliever when the patient actually had appendicitis. Would treating the symptoms actually work? No, they would assure the doom of the patient. In the same way, some try to evangelize by addressing people’s perceived needs, allowing them do diagnose themselves. Would the result be any better? No, even worse. The person would eventually die an eternal death having been an anesthetized from what was truly happening.
We must also avoid the inoculation approach to our evangelism. Sometimes, a patient is inoculated from some terrible disease by giving them a weakened form of the virus in the hopes the person will build up an immunity to the real virus. If we preach a watered down gospel to people, we are in a sense inoculating them from really becoming Christians. Instead they rest their lives in a false hope and do not feel the need to be converted. The greatest curse we can proclaim on a world that God has sent us into the world to proclaim the good news of Christ is to accommodate the gospel to the expectations of sinners. A sinner should never be comfortable in church. If they are, we must seriously consider whether we are in the truth ourselves.
The Preacher knew he is a sinner. If the unconverted person is forced to see himself as he really is, a rebellious sinner, there is hope for his or her cure. He really knows this because Scripture says he know this and tries to suppress this truth. The masks must be removed so that the sinner knows his plight. This is why Ecclesiastes is so useful. We can bring about any mask they throw up to its logical conclusion. The sinner can see there is neither any hope nor anywhere to hide. The sinner also knows there is judgment after death. God has put this in the hearts of all people as Scripture affirms. So we know that they truly know this. This is our advantage. What we need to do is pray for that person that God will open their eyes and use us as the means of bringing them to the light. We do this by being true to the Word of God. It is as we have noted the means of the new creation. God who spoke created all things and by speech maintains the universe. He also uses the preacher to speak his word of life that the dead might be brought back to life.
We now can see how important it is to use Scripture within its context. This is especially true in Ecclesiastes. Even when we come to what sounds good in our ears, we must realize that God might be using what the Preacher says in a different way. We will come to other places in the Book of Ecclesiastes where the Preacher sounds perfectly orthodox. Let us take care when we come to these verses as well.