Because COVID-19 has forced me to work from home—the high school where I teach has moved to online learning—I’ve had some time to catch up on some reading. Once I finished volume 1 of E. W. Hengstenberg’s Christology of the Old Testament I planned to start Hengstenberg’s commentary on Ecclesiastes. I did not plan, however, to start his commentary on Ecclesiastes during the quarantine. That was the Lord’s sovereignty.
At one time I thought that the book of Ecclesiastes can come across as a depressing, throw-your-hands-up-and-give-up book. Hengstenberg, however, has shown me how wrong I’ve been. Reading through Ecclesiastes and Hengstenberg’s comments have been very encouraging during this frightful time in our world and nation. One verse in particular from Ecclesiastes has really stuck out.
Ecclesiastes 8:15 reads:
So I commended pleasure, for there is nothing good for a man under the sun except to eat and to drink and to be merry, and this will stand by him in his toils throughout the days of his life which God has given him under the sun. (NAS95)
The phrase “eat, drink, and be merry” usually has a connotation in our culture of hedonistic pleasure. In my mind, it seems our culture uses this phrase out of a disregard of norms (social or religious) or out of a despondent heart. It’s easy to read Ecclesiastes 8:15 out of the mindset of our culture. However, Solomon, the divinely inspired author, is far from advocating hedonistic living.
It is likely that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes late in life. In fact, some commentators hold that the Song of Solomon was written early in Solomon’s life, and Ecclesiastes was written late in Solomon’s life. If this is accurate, then Solomon is writing Ecclesiastes after reflecting on his earlier life.
In his reflections on the ways of the world (Eccl. 4:1; 7:23; 8:9), Solomon is not saying that there is no point to life. Solomon, argues Hengstenberg, is directing his readers to trust in God. We cannot know the future, and often our best plans fail; all is vanity. Vanity, insists Hengstenberg, should drive us to depend more on God. He writes:
“It is impossible for him to order his doings with judgment [to plan accurately for the future], and he is consequently directed in all cases to trust not in himself but in God.” Hengstenberg on Eccl. 3:10
Many of us had well-devised plans going into the month of March: vacation during spring break; business ventures; school functions. Many of us now have had to alter our plans because of something completely out of our control: COVID-19. What do we do when our plans fall away? What do we do when faced with something out of our control? Solomon tells us to “eat, drink, and be merry.”
The whole point of Ecclesiastes is that we should put our trust in God (3:14; 12:13). When we “eat, drink, and be merry,” therefore, we are eating and drinking and being merry with a heart thankful for what God has given us in the present. We are enjoying what God has given us; we are not drowning our sorrow over what we lost or what we don’t have. We are eating, drinking, and being merry from a posture of trust, trusting that God will care for His people even in the face of a pandemic. We can see from similar verses in Ecclesiastes that Solomon never intended 8:15 to lead us to despair or hedonism:
Eccl. 2:24 There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen that it is from the hand of God.
Eccl. 3:13 Moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor – it is the gift of God
We eat, drink, and be merry for all we have is from God (James 1:17).
In a time, then, when we can’t go to a ball game, when we have to schedule our store trips, when we can’t visit loved ones, when we can’t physically meet with God’s people, let us eat, drink, and be merry. Let us be thankful for the things God has given us: online platforms to meet with the Church; spending time with loved ones; parks; long over due home projects; Netflix. We cannot control what COVID-19 will do to our lives (directly or indirectly), but we can be content in and trust our God.
Sometimes being content is easier said than done. This is a scary time and many of us find ourselves angry at God, scared about the future, or anxious about lost opportunities. But let us remember some other things. First, we have a God who knows what we need before we even ask (Matt. 6:8). Second, He bore our sorrows and sicknesses on the cross (Isaiah 53:4, 5). Third, our Lord encourages us to come to Him with any request (Heb. 4:16), even when our prayers seem dark and angry (just read the Psalms). Fourth, even when we don’t know what to pray, the Spirit is interceding for us (Rom. 8:26).
Since the enjoyment of what we have is itself a gift from God, let us pray for that contentment while we are quarantined.
Note: I recognize that there are many who may have experienced the loss of a loved one due to the virus, or that a loved one may be suffering with the virus. My intention is not to downplay the seriousness of that experience, or to simply throw the band-aid of “be content” on the pain of serious loss and suffering. In the face of deep loss, the road to contentment in the Lord can be long. Thankfully, we have a patient and merciful Lord who hears ALL of our prayers.
A battered reed He will not break off, and a smoldering wick He will not put out. Matthew 12:20
E. W. Hengstenberg, Commentary on Ecclesiastes with Other Treatises, translated by D. W. Simon (Philadelphia: Smith, English, and Co., 1880). Reprint.