The below is an essay on Ecclesiastes I did. The question was ‘The ‘enjoy life’ passages within Ecclesiastes sit as an apparent contradiction to the ‘Hebel’ of life; despite his incongruity, these passages provide enormous insight into both the ‘wisdom’ that the Preacher is seeking to impart and sits as a contrast to the pessimism literature of contemporary writing of the time.’
I ended up getting a credit on it. I’m a little disappointed, as I didn’t quite get to say what I wanted, although I gave it a good crack. I think the mark is definitely fair; the disappointment is more in what I shovelled up, rather than anything else.
Anyway, I thought Ecclesiastes was a really thrilling book and want to continue ploughing its depths for a good while.
The enjoy life passages pose a significant problem to the reader of Ecclesiastes, especially since the author has endeavoured to paint life as a meaningless endeavour. When reading the texts themselves, however, we begin to see that they point to a manner of living that sits in defiance to the ‘hebel’ of life and indeed provides meaning for it. Provided the context of ‘enjoying life’ is done within the correct framework of ‘fearing God’, those who accept what Qoheleth says will find a new level of delight that can be found within the most basic of life’s endeavours; work, food, drink and marital life. Therefore, the function of these passages is to reorientate the reader to be realistic about the meaninglessness of life, turn to fear God, and through Him accept with joy the gifts He gives us.
The book of Ecclesiastes has long puzzled those who read the bible as it, ironically, provides a sense of ‘hebel’ for those wishing to unlock its meaning. One of the more perplexing elements that are woven into the text is the ‘enjoy life’ passages, which appear to be contradictory to the general tone of the book itself. Despite the initial confusion they create for the reader, a deeper look into these passages reveal they are a key to opening a greater understanding of Qoheleth’s point; serving as a ‘leitmotiv’ whilst presenting us with Qoheleth’s view ‘on how life should be lived and why.’ In order to understand how these passages function we must first investigate the genre and purpose of Ecclesiastes within the setting it was written in; this will provide us with the groundwork to interpret and draw meaning out of the text itself. How we interpret the text itself will then allow us to better understand two of the major themes within the book – the nature of ‘hebel’ and the fear of God – and create the framework for our understanding of the ‘enjoy life’ verses and their function within Ecclesiastes. Upon this foundation we can then succinctly analyse how Qoheleth intended us to understand the ‘enjoy life’ texts as well as their role in the greater text. Finally, we will also consider how they are to be understood in light of the revelation of Jesus Christ.
The genre and purpose Ecclesiastes
Understanding the landscape that Qoheleth wrote Ecclesiastes in will provide us with critical clues to discerning its meaning. Although Ecclesiastes doesn’t fall under one specific genre, it is accepted by a number of scholars to be wisdom literature.  However, wisdom literature existed in other cultures with many writings exhibiting a similar form to that of Ecclesiastes. Parallels between it and other Ancient Near East wisdom texts have been noted, but Wright considers this an unfair comparison, stating:
…these are not works of the same genre; they merely include observations about the meaninglessness of life and some advice concerning the enjoyment of life that show some similarity to the content of Ecclesiastes.
Consequently, if we are to best understand the genre of writing that Qoheleth sits within, we must do so in line with how Hebrew’s viewed their wisdom. Hill and Walton suggest the aim of wisdom, in the Hebrew mindset, was a ‘proper relationship Yahweh.’ Waltke concurs by suggesting it centred around ‘musing carefully on life in order to teach the young how to live well before God.’ So although wisdom literature existed within other cultures, we must let our interpretation of Ecclesiastes stem from the background that Qoheleth was writing in; the Hebrew world.
In line with the genre, how we interpret Ecclesiastes is going to be based on what we believe Qoheleth is trying to say. A number of scholars have sought to interpret Ecclesiastes as an apologetic against ‘growing secularism of religion in his day’, a critique of pessimistic wisdom or even the diatribe of a sceptical pessimist who has lost his faith in God. Some positions go so far as to suggest that what the Preacher writes is at odds with faith; Gordis suggests that ‘personal experience or reflection, most probably both’ have ‘robbed’ Qoheleth of his traditional faith, whilst Scott suggests Qoheleth’s teaching are an ‘Agnostic and pessimistic philosophy’ but these are considered extreme viewpoints. Although it can be seen how Qoheleth’s writings could be used as an apology against secularism, all these positions do not sit with our understanding of Hebrew wisdom and its aim of ‘how to live well before God.’ By contrast, other views of Ecclesiastes believe it is seeking to deal ‘with issues that are perennially relevant, both during the entire period of the Old Testament as well as today.’ Ecclesiastes is instead looking to tackle the issues of life; Ellul proposes that Qoheleth is deconstructing everything we previously laid hope in that was deceiving to us so that we might hope in a truth that will not deceive. As such, the Preacher is seeking to pose a greater truth for us to live by through identifying the vanity of all other paths; a truth that sets our hearts to the Creator God.
The ideas and themes of Ecclesiastes
For us to understand what this truth is, and how the ‘enjoy life’ passages are involved, we must take a closer look at the intertwined ideas and themes that rest beneath the surface of Ecclesiastes. Von Rad considers there to be three interconnected insights that combine within the text; that an examination of life leaves one to consider all is vanity; that God determines every event; and that man is unable to understand Gods work. These ideas give us a focus we can then build on. We see support for this by the Preacher highlighting to us what he sees ‘under the sun’; an observation of the human world which frames ‘the scope of the Teacher’s inquiry into meaning.’ Through this study Qoheleth proceeds to identify the ‘hebel’ of work, righteousness, wealth, prestige, pleasure, youth, life and even human wisdom. Qoheleth’s claim that all life is vanity finds its climax in the assertion that ‘it is the same for us all’ and none escape death. This sits as a primary theme that flows throughout Ecclesiastes; that life is meaningless, and both the wise and the fool fall victim to the same fate. Our initial thought, then, is that if life is meaningless, then shouldn’t we simply ‘enjoy life’ for the time we have it? Qoheleth quashes this idea when he identifies that even though he ‘kept [his] heart from no pleasure… all was vanity and a striving after the wind.’ From this we can determine that the ‘enjoy life’ passages are not hedonistic urgings but part of a greater response to the apparent meaningless of life.
Despite Qoheleth’s declaration that ‘human activity is absurd’, we discover the recurring sentiment that ‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.’ This identification that all things have their ‘time’ gives indication that God is in charge. Von Rad suggests that Qoheleth finds himself:
… face to face with the strangely paradoxical fact that… the world and events appear to be completely opaque and that, on the other hand, he is aware that they are completely within the scope of God’s activity.
The Preacher balances the apparent contradiction between life’s meaninglessness and God’s sovereignty when he suggests that none can know the plans of God. It is this authors view that here the idea of sovereignty can be linked with the fear of God as Qoheleth perceives that man ‘cannot find out what God has done’ yet ‘God has done it, so that people fear before Him.’ The Preacher appears to stress that we cannot know the future, nor even draw meaning out of life ‘under the sun’, but we can fear God, and accept what He gives us in the knowledge that judgement will come to both the righteous and the wicked despite the injustice he sees in the world. Rather than viewing life as a random series of events to which we don’t understand the purpose of, he proposes instead that we fear God; recognising His sovereignty over all events and accepting what is given by Him.
Alternatively put, Qoheleth is trying to show is that the world does not hold the key to life, but rather it is found in our fear of God. Eaton states that Qoheleth is attempting to discredit any form of life that is grounded in finding meaning or enjoyment without reliance on God, proposing instead that
The fear of God which he recommends (3:14; 5:7; 8:12; 12:13) is not only the beginning of wisdom; it is also the beginning of joy, of contentment and of an energetic and purposeful life.
Eaton’s statement, and indeed Ecclesiastes itself, challenges the reader to a radical overhaul of their worldview, proposing that only a life lived in the fear of God holds any meaning whatsoever ‘under the sun’ for everything else is ‘vanity’.
The function of the ‘enjoy life’ texts
These two themes, that all of life is ‘vanity’ unless one fears God, coalesce to form the manner in which we can understand the ‘enjoy life’ passages. Firstly, the function of the ‘enjoy life’ passages is to point us towards the one from whom we have received the gift: God! However it is only within the context of fearing God that this gift can be truly enjoyed, for the pursuit of pleasure as its own end will lead us instead to ‘dissatisfaction and emptiness’. If we forget to fear God in our enjoyment of what He has provided, then we forget Qoheleth’s warning of judgement to come. Yet the understanding of judgement is ever more a reason to keep our enjoyment pure. In this manner, Qoheleth seeks to impress upon the reader the appropriate conditions or rules that bring ultimate freedom of enjoyment of God’s gift; without these boundaries, we cannot enjoy the gifts that God presents us with.
Secondly, by associating God as the source of our enjoyment, Qoheleth brings into context both God’s goodness and His sovereign grace; these gifts are unmerited and fall on the deserving and undeserving alike. The very nature of the ‘divine intention’ for good that is directed toward humanity by God indicates that we are to ‘enjoy life’ when granted the opportunity to. Since God provides both the ‘day of prosperity’ and the ‘day of adversity’, it provokes the reader to discern the diametrically opposed approaches to life; one of ‘receiving joy’ as a gift in life and one of ‘striving for gain’ which is ‘hebel’ if it forms the basis of life’s meaning. Provan sums up when he writes ‘Undertaken in this way, we can find joy whether in work or in wealth and find in wisdom valuable help for living.’
We cannot gloss over what Qoheleth is proposing here; a superficial reading of how we should ‘enjoy life’ ignores the far deeper understanding of how this worldview can change our life. Ecclesiastes seeks to construct an outlook that balances the precarious lack of meaning in life with a view of God’s sovereignty; if balanced correctly, then rather than being burdened by our ‘lot’ in life we are instead liberated in the knowledge that what we have is a gift from God of immeasurable value. No longer do we have the pressure of deriving meaning out of our toil, nor do we need to build wealth or pursue pleasure as a means of gratification and purpose; this approach cannot stand under the weight of impending death. But if we fear God and accept what He has given to us as a gift, then suddenly we can rejoice in the taste of good food, delight in fine wine, enjoy our work and take pleasure in the company of our wife simply because of what they are – good things! This is the function that the ‘enjoy life’ passages seek to draw our attention to.
The advent of Jesus Christ allows us the opportunity to reinterpret the ‘enjoy life’ passages and understand their function within the Christian perspective. The New Testament echo with the message of Ecclesiastes; earthly treasures are consumed by moth and rust; the profit of the world comes at the forfeit of their life; the striving for wealth is at the expense of divine reverence; God’s favour is a gift; the concern for ‘tomorrow’ is misplaced. Paul’s allusion to Ecclesiastes in Romans 8:20 identifies the inability for creation to ‘attain the goal for which it was originally designed’ and echoes the ‘hebel’ characteristic of Ecclesiastes.  Yet, despite this, Christ sits as ‘the world’s true gain, a gain like no other’ that ‘subverts and transforms the natural pursuit of gain’. Within the revelation of Christ, our rest in Him and reliance on the Holy Spirit will fill us with joy rather than the pursuit of material gain. It is in Christ that we find our joy and hope in believing, rather than the world. Rather than denying both the ‘hebel’ of life and the need to fear God, Christ reinforces the message of Qoheleth by showing that the only true way we can ‘enjoy life’ is through relationship with Him.
The book of Ecclesiastes presents the reader with a brutally honest reflection of life. Determining the function of the ‘enjoy life’ passages requires a careful handling of the genre and purpose of the text in order to step into the mind of a Hebrew sage. Once this is achieved, it becomes imperative to balance the themes of ‘hebel’ and fear of God before a proper understanding of the ‘enjoy life’ passages and their function can be gained. Nevertheless, these passages play a crucial role in helping the reader come to see that the only manner in which life can be enjoyed is through a realistic understanding of the world and a proper fear of God. Since the only alternative is a bleak and meaningless life, Qoheleth points to God and says ‘Fear Him’ for He is not only the source of joy but the context for how we can enjoy life despite its ‘hebel’. Once the reader grasps the enormity of Ecclesiastes claim and the function of the ‘enjoy life’ passages, they can finally embrace a meaningful worldview that allows them ‘to eat and drink and be joyful’; for this is the gift that God has given to man ‘under the sun’.
Brown, William P., Ecclesiastes, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, John Knox Press, Louisville, 2000
Eaton, M. A., Vol. 18: Ecclesiastes: An introduction and commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983
Ellul, Jacques; Reason for Being: A Meditation on Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990)
Fee, Gordon D., Stuart, Douglas; How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A guided tour; Kindle Edition, 2009.
Glenn, Donald R., Ecclesiastes. In J. F. Walvoord, R. B. Zuck (Ed.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Old Testament, J. F. Walvoord, R. B. Zuck, Ed.). Cook Communications Ministries. 2004
Hendry, G. S., article ‘Ecclesiastes’ in the New Bible commentary, (Third Edition, IVP, 1970)
Hill, Andrew E., and Walton, John H., A survey of the Old Testament, Zondervan, 3rd Edition, 2009
Keller, Tim; Reason for God (New York: Penguin Group, 2008)
Kidner, Derek; Introduction to the Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1985.
Konkel, August H. and Longman, Tremper III, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 6: Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2006).
Ogden, Graham. Qoheleth. Sheffield: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Press, 1987
Provan, I., Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan 2001.
Scott, R. B. Y., Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, AB (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965), 191
Von Rad, Gerhard, Wisdom in Israel, SCM Press, 1988.
Waltke, B. K., & Yu, C. An Old Testament theology: An exegetical, canonical, and thematic approach. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 2007
Whybray, R. N., Qoheleth, Preacher of Joy Journal for the Study of Old Testament, 23(1982) 87-98.
Wright, A. G , Ecclesiastes, In Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990.
Wright, J. S., Ecclesiastes. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 5: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1991
 The particular passages in questions are: Ecc 2:24, 3:12-15, 3:22, 5:18-20, 8:15, 9:7-10, 11:9-10
 Whybray, R. N., Qoheleth, Preacher of Joy Journal for the Study of Old Testament, 23(1982) 87
 Von Rad, Gerhard, Wisdom in Israel, SCM Press, 1988, pg. 227, Wright, J. S., Ecclesiastes. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 5: Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1991, pg. 1146, Eaton, Michael A. vol. 18, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), pg32
 Wright, “Ecclesiastes”, pg 1146.
 Hill, Andrew E., and Walton, John H., A survey of the Old Testament, Zondervan, 3rd Edition, 2009 pg 394
 Fee, Gordon D., Stuart, Douglas; How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A guided tour; Kindle Edition, 2009. loc 2982,
 Glenn, Donald R., Ecclesiastes. In J. F. Walvoord, R. B. Zuck (Ed.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Old Testament, J. F. Walvoord, R. B. Zuck, Ed.). Cook Communications Ministries. 2004 pg 977, Hendry, G. S., article ‘Ecclesiastes’ in the New Bible commentary, (Third Edition, IVP, 1970), pg. 570, Waltke, B. K., & Yu, C. An Old Testament theology: An exegetical, canonical, and thematic approach. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 2007, pg 952.
Scott R. B. Y., Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, AB (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1965), 191
 August H. Konkel and Tremper Longman, III, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 6: Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2006), 258.
 “Any study on vanity must be placed under the heading of George Bernanos’s words: ‘In order to be prepared to hope in what does not deceive, we must first lose hope in everything that deceives.’ This is Qoheleth’s whole message.”Jacques Ellul, Reason for Being: A Meditation on Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 47.
 Kidner, Derek; Introduction to the Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1985. pg 93 – 94
 Von Rad pg. 227
 Ecc: 1:14, 2:11, 3:16, 4:1, 5:13, 6:1, just to give a few examples. Konkel, August H. and Longman, Tremper III, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 6: Job, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2006), pg 257.
 “For Qoheleth the term [heḇel] has a very specific meaning: it identifies the enigmatic, the ironic dimension of human experience; it suggests that life is not fully comprehensible.”(Ogden, Graham. Qoheleth. Sheffield: Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Press, 1987.) Work: Ecc 1:14, 2:11, 17, 4:4, 7-8; righteousness: 8:14; wealth: 2:26; 5:10, 6:2; prestige: 4:16; pleasure: 2:1-2; youth: 11:10; life: 6:12, 7:15, 9:9; wisdom: 2:15.
 Ecc 9:1-6
 Ecc 2:10-11
 Waltke and Yu, An Old Testament Theology 957.
 Ecc 3:1-8,17, 8:6, 9:11f
 Von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, pg 229
 Ecc 3:9-11
 Ecc 3:11,13
 Ecc 3:16-17
 Ecc 12:13-14, Wright, “Ecclesiastes”, pg 1145.
 Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary pg 55.
 Ecc 2:24–25; cf. 8:15
 Waltke and Yu, An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach pg 962.
 Ecc 11:9-10
 Kidner, Introduction to the Wisdom of Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes, pg 101
 “In many cases confinement and constraint is actually a means to liberation…freedom is not so much the absence of restrictions as finding the right ones, the liberating restrictions. Those that fit with the reality of our nature and the world produce greater power and scope for our abilities, and a deeper joy and fulfilment.” Qoheleth’s framework for how we are to enjoy life is suggesting, in principle, that humans need the right restrictions in life in order to enjoy it; a realistic understanding of life’s ‘hebel’ and a fear of God are these restrictions. Keller, Tim, Reason for God (New York: Penguin Group, 2008) 45-6.
 Waltke and Yu, An Old Testament Theology pg 962.
 Von Rad pg. 231
 Ecc 7:14, Brown, pg. 127
Provan, Iain, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (The NIV Application Commentary Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 39.
 Ecc 5:9, 9:9
 Matt 6:9, Matt 16:26, Matt 6:24, 2 Cor 9:8 Matt 6:34
 Konkel and Longman, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary pg259.
 Brown, William P., Ecclesiastes, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, John Knox Press, Louisville, 2000, pg126, also see Phil 3:7-8
 Matt 11:28-30, Gal 5:22
 Ecc 8:15