Formations 10.11.2015: Finding Joy

Ecclesiastes 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10

af25_1_101115_aWhere do you find joy in life? It’s easy to find joy while watching a sunrise or baking cookies or watching a favorite movie, but how about at work? Where can we find joy in the midst of our humdrum daily existence?

Consultant and speaker Rhonda Scharf suggests creating a “Joy Kit” at work. Scharf admits it can’t capture the sunrise or the smell of baking cookies, but it can remind us of the things that give us joy. Her personal kit includes things like a candle, a special box of tea, some chocolate, a book to read for pleasure, and a photo of her children when they were two years old. She explains,

I love my job. I don’t need joy to balance out any “bad” things I might have to deal with, because I genuinely love what I do. But I do need joy to make me feel peaceful. To allow me to reflect on how lucky I am, and to help me take care of my soul.

There are strands of Christian theology that question the value of looking for joy in such earthly things as sweet treats and captivating scents? Shouldn’t believers be more attuned to the life of the Spirit? Shouldn’t we seek joy in God alone?

But biblical faith does not deny the body or the pleasures associated with the body. It merely tries to put these things in a proper perspective. In these passages, the author of Ecclesiastes commends the enjoyment of life: food and drink, physical comforts, meaningful work, and even romance. It is appropriate to find joy in such things when we can, because wisdom tells us they won’t last forever.

Rhonda Scharf, “Here’s How You Can Find Joy Each Day,”, 4 September 2015


• What have you been taught about the goodness (or badness) of physical pleasure?
• What would you put in your “Joy Kit”?
• How can Christians affirm the good things in life without becoming enslaved to them?

Reference Shelf

Live Life for Its Own Benefits

The text [of Ecclesiastes] is dominated by the systematic application of wisdom categories to an investigation of the traditional institutions of ethics and religion. Qoheleth [i.e., the author] recognizes that all of life exists under the aegis of God, though this God is a rather inaccessible deity whose structuring of reality is incontrovertible, but whose structures are subject to the vagaries of human whim. Otherwise, no divine purpose for human existence or philosophy of history is forthcoming. In the light of these observations concerning reality, life is to be lived for its own benefits: the enjoyment of existence (2:24; 3:22; 8:15); the pleasures of companionship (4:9-12; 9:9); the satisfaction of honest labor (5:12).

Clayton N. Jefford, “Ecclesiastes, Book of,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 227–28.

Enjoyment is a Gift of Good from God

The sage has seen good, too. However, readers are unable to forget the pathetic vision of the preceding observation of meaninglessness. The good the sage has seen is only relatively good, but against the background of endless, meaningless repetition, relative good must be embraced. Verse 18 asserts that goodness is in the appropriate- ness or suitability of all those things that contribute to enjoyment: eating, drinking, and seeing good in one’s work. Readers should recall the sage’s observations in 3:11, where he asserts that God has made all things “suitable” (yapeh) in their time. The same Hebrew word used there, yapeh, is translated in v. 18 (NRSV) as “fitting” and denotes the idea of appropriateness. The appropriateness to which the sage refers in v. 18, however, is not something that comes from human designation. Rather, it is God who determines what is appropriate or fitting. Humanity has nothing to do with it.

Verse 19 clarifies the point. It is not enough merely to have been given riches and treasure, unless one has been “made master” over all of it. The observations in vv. 13-17 offer readers a stark reminder of the unreliability of riches alone in securing enjoyment. God causes people to be able to enjoy wealth and prosperity by making them masters of it. It is a gift from God to be able to take up one’s lot or inheritance. That “lot” is indeed from God. It represents potential good, but it also has limitations. Enjoying it means one must stay within the boundaries of that lot.

The summary statement in v. 20 is provocative. Readers find it challenging to determine the specific referent of being “occupied” as well as understanding the overall implication of the verse. As NRSV translates the phrase, it explains how God gives to some the ability to enjoy their wealth: he simply keeps them occupied (ma‘aneh) with the “joy of their hearts.” That occupation prevents a consciousness of the surrounding evil so that people may enjoy the gifts from God. Does this refer to both people who can and cannot enjoy their lots from God? If so, then God’s gift is more like a painkiller, an anesthetic, that prevents the kind of honest look at reality the sage has been describing throughout his own book. The theological implications are even more serious: God is therefore one who is dishonest; religious faith is little more than a drug.

An alternative meaning of ma‘aneh is “answer,” implying that God’s answer to human toil is through the joy that does come to some. Reading ma‘aneh as “answer” has good precedent in the Proverbs (e.g., Prov 15:1, 23; 16:1; 29:19; Job 23:5). What is more, the sentence might not be taken as a description of life, but as an injunction toward a certain response to life: “he should not brood over the days of his life, for God answers through the joy of his heart.” As a climax to the sage’s assertion of good, this verse then functions as an admonition to enjoy life without any hesitation, if indeed the deity has put it in one’s power to do so.

Milton P. Horne, Proverbs–Ecclesiastes, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2003), 461–62.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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