Admonition to Carefreeness in Light of Vanity (2:24-26)

2:24 There is nothing good for a man (except) that he should eat and drink and let his soul see good in his labor. And this I have seen, that it is from the hand of God. 2:25 For who can eat or who can have enjoyment apart from Him? 2:26 For to a man who is good in His sight He has given wisdom, knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting in order to give to one who is good in God’s sight. This also is vanity and a pursuit of wind.

Qoheleth’s expressions of despair and pessimism in the previous passage are in the context of recounting his past experiences, especially his experience with pursuing temporal success through laboring with wisdom. He is sharing with us how he felt when he evaluated those experiences and realized the vanity of them all. But does he still feel this way at the time of recounting them in the speech? We need to look at the purpose of this recounting.

The passage before us introduces a major sub-theme of the speech. Qoheleth here admonishes us to have enjoyment in life. This admonition is repeated several times later in the speech (3:12-13, 22; 5:18; 8:15), with slight variations in expression. Then in 9:7-9, and finally in 11:7-10, the admonition takes the form of an outright instruction. He is in fact presenting it as the solution to the vanity of life. For every time this admonition occurs it is in the context of how we should respond to the vanity of life, whether in light of what he personally experienced, as is the case here, or in light of what he personally observed, or both. That means Qoheleth is recounting his past experiences as a personal testimony on how not to live in order to persuade us how then to live. So he must have learned from his past pessimism and departed from it. As we now take a closer look at the admonition, it will become clear that he has moved on to embrace a wholesome form of realism.

Qoheleth pursued after pleasure to find out what was "good ... to do" (2:1-11). Even with his wisdom guiding him, he found the experience disappointing. For the pursuit could only give pleasure but not satisfaction. Even then, the things that gave pleasure, which were acquired through laboring with wisdom, would one day be taken away (2:12-23). So what then is good? Qoheleth presents his answer in the form of an admonition. "There is nothing good," he says, except to let our soul "see good" in our labor through the “enjoyment” of its fruit. In light of his disappointing experience with pleasure, by “enjoyment” Qoheleth does not mean just having pleasure, but also satisfaction. Unless we are satisfied with an experience, no matter how pleasurable, we cannot really say we enjoyed it. In fact this is implied in "let his soul see good in his labor." The soul is the seat of desire. For the soul to “see good,” the desire must be satisfied (cf. Schoors 2004: 218-9). This idea will be elaborated when we look at 5:18-6:6, which contrasts those who have the ability to enjoy prosperity with those who do not.

However this is not as if Qoheleth “were saying that enjoyment of food and possessions is the goal of life. In this context he is talking about how one should view life with respect to labor and the fruit of labor” (Garrett 1993: 296). In other words, if the laborious pursuits of pleasure and success, even when boosted by wisdom, are in reality profitless, how then should we live? What role should labor and its fruit play in our life? Qoheleth's answer is that we should enjoy the fruit of our labor and thus let our soul find satisfaction in it. Let us explore the implications of this answer.

As we have discussed in our exposition of 2:1-11, we will have enjoyment and find satisfaction only if we are not trapped in pursuing after pleasure or the things that give pleasure. Most often people do not even realize this is what they are doing. So we must stop and evaluate our goals in life. This brings us back to the insight of psychiatrist Frankl that pleasure must not be made a goal in itself but instead remain a side-effect. What then is the goal of labor if it should not be pleasure, whether the pleasure associated with success or the luxury it brings? Qoheleth affirms that people pursue after pleasure, success and even wisdom in order to satisfy the need to make sense of life (see exposition on 1:13). And he presents his admonition not only as the solution to the vanity of life but also as the alternative to these pursuits, stressing that besides it, "there is nothing good." That means his admonition must in some ways address the basic question of the meaning of life. And it would also give a hint on the proper goal of labor.

Qoheleth has testified to the vanity of wisdom, pleasure and success in such a way that when he says that there is nothing good except to have enjoyment and find satisfaction, our conscience will not argue with him. For knowingly or unknowingly, when we labor, it is in order to find satisfaction. So it does not make sense that all that our labor brings is pleasure that does not satisfy or possessions that do not last. Therefore the most realistic and sensible thing to do is to enjoy the fruit of our labor and thus find satisfaction in it. And how can life as a whole be meaningful if we are not doing the most sensible or meaningful thing in light of its vanity? In this way, enjoyment and satisfaction help us make sense of life, and thus contribute to the meaning of life. Qoheleth's response to the vanity of life at the time of the speech is thus realistic. But his is not a godless form of realism.

For when Qoheleth presents his solution to the vanity of life (for the very first time!), he brings God into the picture. He spells out that the ability to have enjoyment and find satisfaction “is from the hand of God.” And God gives this ability only to those who “are good in His sight.” This may sound outrageous to contemporary ears. Here Qoheleth does not explain why this is so. But he will develop and defend this idea later on (especially in 5:18-6:9 and 11:7-10). Let us then give him the benefit of the doubt for now so that we can move on and see what he is trying to say. This is not difficult if we have been following his arguments and feeling his (past) frustrations. For we would then have realized that though we can pursue after pleasure and success, we cannot ensure that we enjoy life. It implies that we may need help beyond ourselves. Qoheleth’s ancient audience would have been rather receptive to this idea which we may find repulsive today. Even if we do not believe in God, we can still understand, “who can have enjoyment without Him,” as a metaphor to mean that the ability to find satisfaction in life is beyond self-determination.

After all, this does not mean that this ability is beyond human initiative. Qoheleth says that God will allow us to enjoy life if we are “good in His sight,” a condition we can do something about. In other words, the ability to find satisfaction is a side-effect of being “good in His sight.” What then does it mean for a person to be “good in His sight”? We are told that such a person is given “knowledge, wisdom and joy.” In Old Testament wisdom teaching, the “fear of God” is the “beginning” of knowledge (Prov 1:7) and of wisdom (Prov 9:10). Here Qoheleth is merely hinting that we need to "fear God" to enjoy life but later in 3:14, he spells it out. We shall then see that one who “fears God” is basically a conscientious person with an upright heart. He would then have joy because of his upright ways (Prov 12:20). Hence one who is “good in God’s sight” is one who seeks to live an upright life, and is here aptly contrasted with “the sinner,” or the wicked, whose self-destructive way of life betrays a lack of knowledge and wisdom, and whose joy is therefore only “momentary” (Job 20:5).

Later Qoheleth acknowledges that the wicked may also become prosperous. Here he points out in advance that they would not be able to enjoy their prosperity (an idea elaborated in 6:1-6). They are “given the business of gathering and collecting (wealth) in order to give to one who is good in God’s sight.” With respect to the sinner, this "business" without doubt “also is vanity and a pursuit of wind.” But what does “in order to give to one who is good in God’s sight” mean? It could be understood in light of 6:2, where Qoheleth talks about a man who is not able to enjoy his wealth, but instead a “stranger” will enjoy it. So it means that those who are not upright can only be busy “gathering and collecting” wealth but not enjoy it. And that since they have to leave their wealth behind (2:12-17), it can benefit others. But since their heirs may not enjoy it because they may not have what it takes to handle the wealth (2:18-23), in the end, as the wealth scatters, it will only benefit “strangers” who are “good in God’s sight.” In this sense, the sinner is storing up wealth to be “given” to the upright (cf. Prov 13:22b). In a world in which the wicked may seem to get away with their ill-gotten wealth, this teaching helps us make sense of life as we see it.

If, just for the sake of understanding Qoheleth better, we grant him that it is indeed a real and not a metaphorical God who gives the ability to enjoy life, what difference does it make? It will give us a transcendent purpose to labor and to the enjoyment of life. Labor enables us to meet our material needs, without which we cannot enjoy life. And when we recognize that it is God who enables us to enjoy the fruit of our labor, we can thank and praise Him wholeheartedly. This ability to thank and praise God then contributes to the meaning of life. For as C. S. Lewis put it, “all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise ... and we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation ...; the delight is incomplete until it is expressed [in praise]. It is frustrating ... to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch.” (1958: 94-95). In other words, without a real God to thank, we can only “thank goodness,” and so even the enjoyment of an exceptionally good fortune serves no transcendent, and thus no deeply satisfying or truly meaningful, purpose.


Blogger The Hedonese said...

Absolutely LOVE this profound quote by CS Lewis, it is foundational to our understanding of how our delight consummates in praise, giving glory to the Creator... It's the bedrock of John Piper's dictum: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him

12:13 PM  

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