Elaboration on Carefreeness (5:18-6:9)

Enjoyment of Prosperity (5:18-20)

5:18 Look! What I have seen to be good, what is fitting, is to eat and drink and to see good in all of one’s labor in which he toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 5:19 In fact, (in the case of) every man whom God gives wealth and possessions and (also) empowers him to enjoy it and to receive his lot and rejoice in his labor--this is the gift of God. 5:20 For he will not often remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with the gladness of his heart.

With the interjection “Look!” Qoheleth redirects our attention to what he had seen to be “good” and “fitting.” Instead of being trapped in the grievousness of loving money (5:10-17), he admonishes us to enjoy our eating and drinking and so find satisfaction (“see good”) in our toils. He has already said three times that except for this, there is “nothing good” (2:24; 3:12, 22). He also reiterates the reason for it: “for this is his lot” (5:19; 3:22). Without repeating the discussion in our exposition of 3:22, this phrase means that the only good we can expect from the things we work for in this life is to find enjoyment in and through them. For this is what is alloted to us. When one is able to experience this good and thus “rejoice in his labor” he is said to have “received his lot.” As reflected in our translation of verse 19, the implication is that not everyone, including those who have wealth and possessions, “receives his lot.”

In this passage, Qoheleth adds that enjoyment is not only good but also “fitting.” The Hebrew word was earlier used in 3:11 in the statement that God “makes everything appropriate in its time.” There it is used to express the idea that the events represented in the poem of 3:1-8 happen in this world in a way that is appropriate to, or is fitting in light of, an overall purpose. Here it expresses the idea that the enjoyment of the fruit of our labor “is fitting,” or makes sense, in light of the brevity (“few days”) of life under the sun. As can be seen in our exposition of 2:24-26, this idea was already implied when Qoheleth first presented enjoyment as the solution to the vanity of life.

How then can one “receive his lot”? According to Qoheleth, the ability to enjoy what we have is a gift received from the hand of God (5:19; 2:24; 3:13). And only those who are “good in God’s sight” (2:24-26), that is, those who are God-fearing (3:12-15) get to receive this gift. How then is this gift received and what has fearing God to do with it? Before we answer these questions, let us take note that in this context Qoheleth is talking about the enjoyment of wealth and prosperity. This passage provides the solution to the problem presented in the previous passage: the grievous afflictions that plague wealthy people who love money. It also confirms that Qoheleth was not speaking against wealth, but only against the love of money. Although this passage addresses enjoyment of prosperity and not enjoyment of life in general, it is clear that what it teaches about enjoyment is also applicable to it.

Qoheleth explains that one who has received his lot as a gift from God is he whom God has “empowered” to enjoy what He has given him. To do this, “God keeps him occupied with the gladness of his heart” so that “he will not often remember the days of his life.” That means he is hardly bothered by the cares of this life. When we are burdened by cares our days pass by slowly. But when we are occupied with gladness we hardly “remember” or take notice of our days passing by. Qoheleth is not saying, “he will never remember the days of his life.” He recognizes that even a carefree person will face problems and experience sorrows and even have anxious moments (7:14). He is talking about a disposition that is basically carefree, a carefreeness that makes it actually possible even for a wealthy person to enjoy his prosperity. In light of what Qoheleth has just said about the cares and miseries often associated with wealth, this comes as a breath of fresh air.

This elaboration on what it means to have enjoyment as a gift from the hand of God clarifies the kind of enjoyment Qoheleth had in mind all along (2:24-26; 3:12-13, 22): experiencing pleasure and satisfaction out of a carefree disposition. And since not many people have such a disposition, the kind of enjoyment that Qoheleth has been referring to is not common. The experience we call “enjoyment” is very subjective. Anyone can say, “I am enjoying life.” But unless he has a relatively carefree disposition, he has not known the blissful enjoyment Qoheleth is talking about. With this in mind, we are now ready to consider the fear of God in relation to enjoyment.

It may not be obvious to a contemporary reader that in this passage Qoheleth has actually begun to explain why only God-fearing people can enjoy life. But to his original audience, to fear God is to keep His commandments (12:13). And they would have known the Ten Commandments by heart (Exod 20:1-17; Deut 5:6-21). When Qoheleth was describing the grievousness of loving money, they would have understood it as the consequence of violating the tenth commandment: “You shall not covet.” In case any of them failed to do so, Qoheleth soon made it clear enough that covetousness was indeed the problem (6:7-9). A God-fearing person, whether rich or poor, will be relatively free from the love of money and the self-imposed cares and miseries that come with it. This will enable him to enjoy what God has given him.

The love of money is an expression of covetousness. As “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1Tim 6:10), covetousness is often the cause behind the breaking of the other nine commandments. So the tenth commandment forbids all forms of covetousness. It is not just against coveting one’s neighbor’s field (greed) but also his wife (lust) and “anything that belongs to him” (which includes envy and selfish ambition). Each of these negative feelings, in and by itself, already robs us of the gladness of our heart. What more when it leads to the actual violation of the other commandments. The possibility of carefreeness is then virtually ruled out. For consider the commandments against murder, theft, adultery, and perjury. Can anyone who commits, or is covetous enough that he is inclined to commit, any of these be care-free? Since covetousness is in one’s heart and no one else sees it except God, only the conscientious will be able to overcome it. It should now be obvious why a God-fearing heart is necessary to cultivating the carefree disposition needed to enjoy life.

If it is one’s fear of God that gives him the ability to enjoy the fruit of his labor, how then can Qoheleth say it is God who “empowers him to enjoy it,” and it is God who “keeps him occupied with the gladness of his heart”? We have been reminding ourselves that, since Qoheleth considers whatever happens as ultimately either directed or permitted by God, he attributes whatever we experience to the hand of God. However, in this case, since we do know the immediate cause behind one’s ability to enjoy life, we can explore more specifically in what way it is ultimately the work of God.

In Old Testament wisdom thinking, God has created, and has been sustaining, the world in such a way that those who do not fear Him and so violate His commandments will suffer the consequences (Prov 8:12-14, 22-36; 9:10). Qoheleth just highlighted one such consequence, namely, the inability to enjoy the fruit of their labor. His description of the misery of loving money illustrates this reality. The painful consequences of not keeping God’s commandments are intended to goad us into fearing Him, “for God so works that men should fear Him” (3:14). In the context this statement occurs, it refers to God appointing unpleasant events in this world to make us face the reality that while death is certain, life is uncertain (3:1-8). An intended effect on us is the realization that everything we covet after and work for in this life is in the end profitless (3:9). When we take this somber reality to heart we can see that coveting after what we do not have, and especially since it burdens us with cares and deprives us of the enjoyment of what we do have, is utterly meaningless. This realization can thus set us free from covetousness as well as free to keep His other commandments.

Since it is God who so works that we are prodded to fear Him, ultimately it is God who keeps our hearts from the cares and miseries associated with not keeping His commandments. Furthermore, God has not only created human beings with the predisposition to fear Him through their conscience, but has also put a knowledge of His commandments in their hearts (Deut 30:11-14; Rom 2:14-16). This explains why people who have never heard of the Ten Commandments and may not even profess belief in God know it is wrong to commit murder, theft, adultery and perjury. And some of them may even be by nature conscientious enough that they would not even consider committing any of these wrongs. In this sense they are innately enabled to be carefree. So all the more it makes sense to say that it is indeed God who empowers us to enjoy life. But of course not everyone is by nature conscientious enough, or is willing to yield to God’s prodding, to fear Him and keep His commandments. This is the concern of the next passage (6:1-9).

A question now arises. Can one who lives a conscientious life but does not acknowledge God be “occupied with the gladness of his heart”? As we saw in our exposition of 3:10-15, when we are faced with the reality of the certainty of death and the uncertainties of life, it evokes in us a deep-seated sense of insecurity. This is intended to make us feel the need to turn to the God who is in control of whatever happens in this world. This then leads us to acknowledge Him by living our life on His terms through keeping His commandments. By thus recognizing His providence, we are enabled to cultivate a deep sense of security instead. People who do not acknowledge God may be conscientious enough to be free from the negative emotions associated with covetousness. They are certainly more carefree than those under the grip of covetousness. But they cannot be truly carefree unless they are also able to come to terms emotionally with the certainty of death and the uncertainties of life. Since according to Qoheleth, this somber reality is intended to prod us to acknowledge God, he would not think one who does not do so could be truly carefree.


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