On Frodo Baggin’s legendary journey to Mordor, there is plenty of reason to be afraid: uncertain terrain, imposing enemies and a psychotic creature who looks like he’s starving to death. None of this seems to alter the appetite of his fellow companion, Pippin, whose main concern is about the next meal and the next and the next…
While Pippin’s obsession is easily dismissed by his companions in this epic tale, he’s not the first character to prioritize eating during times of great distress. Among all the challenging concepts tackled in Ecclesiastes, Solomon commonly returns to a piece of advice that seems it should have come from the inhabitants of middle-earth:
“There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” Ecclesiastes 2:24,25
This is far from an isolated recommendation. This one includes the value of doing good deeds:
“ I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.” Ecclesiastes 3:12, 13
One that assigns enjoyment as a purpose of our life:
“This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot.” Ecclesiastes 5:18
One with a ringing endorsement from God:
“Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.” Ecclesiastes 9:7
And this one to encourage bringing a long a partner in the journey:
“Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 9:9
If no wife is there, Pippin, Merry and Samwise Gamgee will probably do. Whoever the companions on our journey, enjoying life is a big deal to Solomon. But how does he reconcile this with his otherwise somber view of the world?
One could say that Solomon looks to joy as a kind of coping mechanism: “If you work hard at your craft, improve your skills and accomplish as much as you can, then indulge yourself with good food, fine wine and friendly company, you won’t worry about the meaninglessness of your life. This distraction is a gift from God.”
Philosopher Bryan Macgee records his puzzling experience with this perspective while watching a group of older people enjoy themselves:
“‘They’re like passengers on the Titantic, except that these poeple know already that they’re headed for total and irremediable shipwreck….How can they sit there enjoying their lunch, telling jokes, laughing, their eyes sparkling with pleasure? In a short time now they’ll be dead, all of them, and what’s more they know it now. They’re almost face to face with total oblivion. Don’t they care?’…Above all, I was baffled by the fact that the middle-aged, who were so close to death, tended to be even more cheerful than the young. In some of my moods they seemed to me like a lot of lunatics chuckling dementedly while the asylum burnt down and turned them to ash.” 1)Confessions of a Philosopher, 253
Oh, yes, back to that pesky issue of the uncertain end that comes to us all. Of course Solomon shared more in common with Macgee about the questions of the afterlife than many believers would today. He knows a little pleasure now isn’t enough to answer life’s most pressing mysteries. That begs the question: what does the teacher have in mind when he recommends “joy and pleasure” as an elixir for the pains of life?
Unlike Macgee, Solomon’s uncertainty about the future did not destroy his confidence in the One who holds it. A world with so much pain and confusion may make joy seem impossible at times. But the wise King saw that choosing joy was a valuable decision as a means to sanity. This is because joy is not only vital to God’s plan for us, it’s a vital attribute of His character.
In the Genesis creation story, God finds great delight in every stage of bringing beauty out of chaos. God spoke; there was light; it was good. God spoke; there was water; it was good. God spoke; there was land; it was good…The cadence of this creation poem makes it seem like an artist stepping back periodically to admire his work: “Hmmm, that’s good.” (Read that with the timber of a James Earl Jones and let the first word rumble a bit, “Hmmmmm…).
Immediately after this account is complete, though, a world of bliss is ruined by a cunning and deceptive serpent in a tree. Later in the biblical narrative (in Revelation to be exact), it becomes clear this is no ordinary snake. The enemy was scheming in the Garden to destroy the work of God.
Now one of the key features of God is His knowledge of the future. It’s how He demonstrates His power and gives confidence to His people. So, he must have known about the evil that was to come, even before creation was started. Still, God enjoyed creation. God celebrated the beauty and the promise. God, knowing the perilous future to come, took joy in temporary pleasure of the moment. How could he do his knowing the enemy would destroy it? How was he able to find such joy during the creative process, with this great cloud looming over him?
Solomon’s conclusion is that God is working on something greater than the moment: “He has made everything beautiful in it’s time.” So, God could enjoy the beauty of the moment because he knew it spoke to the greater reality. Pain was coming yes, but it would not last forever. Confusion was on it’s way, but it was disappearing. Death was entering the world, but life would prevail. God took joy in every moment he could because he knew in the end that the good stuff would last longer. He knew that the greater truth in the kind of life he has for us is not the darkness, but the light.
As it turns out, Pipin the Hobbit was on to something. The journey in life is an unpredictable one. It will call for greater courage from us than we thought possible. It will cause more pain than we can probably imagine. It will have it’s share of heartbreaks. But none of this is reason enough to let ourselves be discouraged. Every moment of this life is to be relished as much as possible: the work we do, the companions we embrace and yes, the food we eat should all be done so with joy. Because the greater truth as we trust in God is not the chaos, it’s the beauty.
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|1.||↑||Confessions of a Philosopher, 253|