Admonition to Carefreeness in Light of Vanity (3:22)

3:22 So I saw that there is nothing good except that man should have enjoyment in (the fruits of) his labors, for that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will be after him?

This is the third time Qoheleth admonishes his audience to have enjoyment, and he will repeat it a few more times. Though it is always given in response to the vanity of life, each time the admonition occurs it is in a slightly different context. This enables us to have a more nuanced understanding of how enjoyment fits into the purpose or meaning of life. This time, the admonition is still in the larger context of God using the somber reality painted in the poem (the uncertainties of life and the certainty of death) to prod us to fear Him (3:10-15). But its immediate context is that of recognizing that ultimately we do not even have advantage over animals (3:16-21). And it is in this context that Qoheleth introduces the idea that enjoyment is actually our “lot” in life. We will take a close look at this idea and then its implications in its immediate as well as larger contexts.

The Hebrew word translated “lot” occurs eight times in Ecclesiastes (2:10,21; 3:22, 5:18,19; 9:6,9; 11:2). It refers to what is allotted or apportioned by someone or to someone. But the exact nuance of the word and specifically what the allotment consists of depend on the context. We must be careful not to assume that the same word always refers to the same thing in different contexts. Also, note that the idea of a “lot” implies that what is allotted to us is all that we get. For instance, when receiving an inheritance, if one is told, “This is your lot (from your father’s estate),” it implies, “This is all you get (from your father’s estate).”

The first time the word occurs in Ecclesiastes (2:10), it is in the context of Qoheleth’s pursuit of pleasure to see what was “good ... to do.” Pleasure then was his “lot” from all his labors, that is, pleasure (without satisfaction) was all that he got. He found the pleasure profitless as it did not satisfy him. So when he considered all his labors, he lamented that “all is vanity and a pursuit of wind” (2:11). The second time the word occurs, it refers to Qoheleth’s estate which would be allotted to his heir as an inheritance. Qoheleth also found this to be vanity, but in a different sense: he had to leave behind everything he labored for with wisdom to one who may not have what it takes to make good use of it. These experiences led him to admonish us that there is nothing good except to have enjoyment, and not just raw pleasure.

The third occurrence is in the verse here. It refers to what is allotted to humanity. This meaning recurs three more times (5:18,19; 9:9), all in the context of the admonition to enjoy life. To better understand Qoheleth’s admonition, we need to give adequate attention to the concept of “lot” as first introduced in this verse.

When Qoheleth admonishes us to enjoy life, he always uses the word “lot” to refer to the enjoyment of the fruit of human labor, except in 9:9. There he admonishes his audience to “enjoy life with the woman whom you love.” But even then, this enjoyment is said to be “your lot in life and in your labor.” So it is still somehow connected to labor. The most obvious connection is that labor enables us to meet our material needs. Otherwise, lacking a proper shelter and without adequate food and clothing, it would be very difficult to have enjoyment of life with friends and family. That means the fruit of our labor is not only meant to be enjoyed in themselves but also to meet our basic needs so that we are set free to enjoy life as a whole. This teaching is particularly crucial in the present time when people live to work, instead of work to live.

Qoheleth’s idea that enjoyment is our “lot” is here presented in the context that humans have no advantage over animals because in the end they die and leave this world empty-handed just like animals (3:18-21). But animals never owned anything! So in the light of death, it is as if we had owned nothing. Since we have no say over whether we could take with us what we have when we die, which can happen at any time and without prior notice, how can we say that we own the things we work for? We do not even own our very life! They are not allotted to us as such. What is allotted is only the enjoyment these things can give us while we still “own” them. To appreciate this reality we need to view this world the way a child views a child-care center full of toys. What is “allotted” to him is the enjoyment of whatever toys he gets to “own” while he is there, but he cannot take any of them with him when he leaves. It would be foolish of the child to spend the few hours he has at the center busy looking out for and gathering his favorite toys, and then guarding them, as if he could bring them home, and in the process miss the opportunity to enjoy any of them.

For this very reason Qoheleth has been admonishing us that there is nothing good except to enjoy what we get to “own.” He will soon be talking about those who have the ability to enjoy their wealth (5:19). So he is not speaking against having wealth but against pursuing after it as a goal in life, and in the process we are not able to enjoy what we already have. Qoheleth points out that enjoyment is actually our “lot” to help us see more clearly that besides enjoyment, there is indeed nothing good. For the implication is clear. If one does not enjoy life, he has not received what is allotted to him, and he is thus left with nothing good. And as if to further drive home this point, Qoheleth asks, “For who can bring him to see what will be after him?” Since “after him” means after his death (Seow 1997: 168), the rhetorical question affirms two things: our life in this world will end and we do not know what is in store after that. Can we then point to anything that is good except what is allotted to us in this life?

We must be reminded in this context that Qoheleth is not saying that enjoyment, let alone raw pleasure, is the goal of life. Enjoyment is not the highest, and certainly not the only, good in this life. As this admonition is always given in response to the vanity of life, the affirmation that there is “nothing good” except enjoyment must be understood with respect to what we can expect from the things that we work for under the sun. In fact, there is a higher good such as joy, a sublime form of good feeling which can be experienced apart from material things (Prov 21:15). It comes with a God-fearing disposition and way-of-life, which according to Qoheleth is also the prerequisite for the enjoyment of material things. So in practice when there is real enjoyment there is also joy, making the enjoyment blissful and more meaningful. Perhaps this explains why when Qoheleth gave his admonition for the first time he could say, “For who can eat or who can have enjoyment apart from Him? For to a man who is good in His sight He has given wisdom, knowledge and joy” (2:25-26).

In Qoheleth's thinking, the goal of life and the highest good is then the fear of God, and what this means in practical terms. He goes so far as to say that in everything He does in this world, “God so works that man should fear Him” (3:14). This brings us to look at the idea of enjoyment as our “lot” in the larger context of God using the somber reality embodied in the poem of 3:1-8 to goad us to fear Him.

A major barrier to fearing God and living an upright life is the grip that temporal things have on the human heart. It is impractical to attempt to live a righteous life if we are still very much covetous at heart. It is in fact widely recognized that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. But God so works that we cannot escape from the reality that while death is certain life is uncertain. This causes us to see the vanity of everything that money can buy. If we take this reality to heart, it would help loosen the grip money has on us. But then, if we have not come to terms with this somber reality it could trigger a pessimistic response and cause us to be overwhelmed with a sense of meaninglessness.

This is where Qoheleth’s admonition, which teaches a realistic response to the vanity of life, comes in. As we just saw, the idea of enjoyment as our lot teaches us to view this world the way a child views a child-care center full of toys. This view enables us to look at temporal things, including what we already “own,” with a degree of detachment. The greater the degree of our detachment from temporal things, the more prepared we are to let go of them. And that means, to that same degree, we would be less bothered by the uncertainties of life and the certainty of death. As we thus learn to come to terms with this somber reality we are also loosening (further) the grip temporal things have on us. In other words, we are learning to overcome a major barrier that keeps people from acknowledging God and fearing Him. And that means the degree of our detachment from temporal things can be an indication of how much we really fear God.

Consider the biblical Job, who feared God greatly and lived an exceptionally upright life. He was certainly at peace with the somber reality that while death is certain life is uncertain. For this was what he said when he lost not only all his wealth but also all his children: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).


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