Ecclesiastes 9: 4 biblical rules for enjoying life (and glorifying God)
'How to live life' books are always near the top of the bestseller charts. Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life is still up there after many weeks.
Some regard this as a modern fad, but as Solomon tells us, there is nothing new under the sun. Three thousand years before Jordan Peterson, Solomon offers his own rules for life.
Having spoken of those who seek to escape the question of death and those who endure, he now turns to considering the best attitude to death. It's an attitude that many would not associate with the Bible. We are to prepare for death by enjoying life. Solomon suggests four ways that we can do so.
Rule 1: Enjoy what God has approved
Solomon counsels that we should be content with our situation, take our opportunities, work hard and be grateful to God for what he has given us in life. The believer in God gives herself to a contented and joyful life. The basis of this is that God has already approved what you do. We are not struggling for acceptance. We receive contentment as God's gift. Go eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do.
He mentions white garments and anointing oil (verse 8) because they were things that made life a lot more comfortable in such a hot climate. Food, clothing and ointment were seen as the essentials of life. What is being spoken of here is organic life – or real food. It's the difference between real food and junk food. People want real life. In today's society we have food, full schedules, easy get-in get-out relationships, etc. This is not how we should live in the light of eternity.
Rule 2: Enjoy your meals (verse 7). The average Jewish family began the day with an early snack and then had a light meal ('brunch') sometime between 10 am and noon. They didn't eat together again until after sunset. When their work was done they gathered for the main meal of the day. It consisted largely of bread and wine, perhaps milk and cheese, with a few vegetables and fruit in season, and sometimes fish. Meat was expensive and was served only on special occasions. It was a simple meal that was designed to nourish both the body and the soul. Eating together ('breaking bread') was a communal act of friendship and commitment. Rosario Butterfield was a lesbian feminist professor at Syracuse University before she became a Christian. It was the hospitality of a Reformed Presbyterian pastor and his wife, that made the radical difference to her. Her latest book (The Gospel Comes With a House Key), understandably lauds what is called the ordinary gift of hospitality. One of the simplest things we could do to improve family life is to learn to eat together. Eating together is a great way of strengthening the family, creating friendships, establishing fellowship and bearing witness to the love of Christ. Maybe in our hectic world we need to slow down and enjoy our meals, so that we can enjoy one another and enjoy Christ.
Perhaps Solomon was reflecting on his own experience: 'Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred' (Proverbs 15:17); 'Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife' (Proverbs 17:1).
Perhaps the oil and the white robes refer to special occasions. Then Solomon is saying, enjoy every occasion – or make every occasion a special enjoyable one.
Rule 3: Enjoy your partner
'Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life at God has given you under the sun' (verse 9) is hardly the verse you expect to see on an anniversary card. The demands of marriage include the giving of affection – 'whom you love'. 'Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her' (Ephesians 5:25). Marriage is God's gift, a gift that we are to enjoy, not endure. 'Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral' (Hebrews 13:4) . The marriage that is spoken of is affectionate, lifelong and monogamous. I think a key here is commitment. It is not a cheap throwaway thing. It is incredible the number of men (and women) who just walk away. Did Solomon live up to this? No. But perhaps he was writing this in later life and repenting?
Rule 4: Enjoy your work
Life is to be active and energetic, practical and skilful. Because of our contentment, comfort and companionship we throw ourselves into life. The pessimist cannot enjoy life and his emptiness cannot be filled up in retrospect. In Sheol, earthly things such as activity, plans and wisdom, all cease. 'As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no-one can work' (John 9:4).
So we work with all our might. Whatever your hand finds to do means what is available and within one's ability. Today is the day of opportunity. There is no opportunity in the grave. That is one of the reasons we live life to the full. We work with all our might – we do it with all our strength and our very best.
At one level all the above reads as though Solomon really was the forerunner of Jordan Peterson 3,000 years ago – offering wise principles of living! But he is doing much more than that, because the theme of the whole book that 'under the sun' (ie without God), this is all meaningless. Rules for life and exhortations to contentment, comfort and companionship are all very well – but how do we get them?
The Westminster Shorter Catechism famously asks, 'What is man's chief end?' and answers, 'Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever'. It is when we get our relationship with God sorted that we can then get on with enjoying life. How do we prepare for death? Jesus provides the answer. 'Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"' (John 11:25-26). Being secure in Christ means we can face death without fear and so live our lifes with joy, to the glory of God our creator.
Warren Wiersbe neatly sums it all up: 'If we fear God and walk by faith we will not try to escape or merely endure life. We will enjoy life and receive it happily as a gift from the Lord.'
David Robertson is associate director of Solas CPC in Dundee and minister at St Peter's Free Church. Follow him on Twitter @TheWeeFlea