Existentialism and Joy in Ecclesiastes - Eccl. 1:2, 18

by Robert Brow        (www.brow.on.ca)

(An edited version of a sermon at the St. James, Kingston, Ontario students service on February 5, 1997)

 At first sight Ecclesiastes is an Existentialist book. "Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity" (1:2). The Teacher has tried everything and found it pointless and futile. Even intellectual pursuits turn sour in us. "In much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow" (1:18).

 Twentieth-century French Existentialism requires an authentic acceptance of total meaninglessness, especially in the face of our own mortality. But then it offers the creation of our own meaning by the free act of deciding. Its creed is "By choosing this totally meaningless and irrational act and direction for my life, I become the creator of my own meaning."

 Ecclesiastes preceded modern Existentialism by two millenia in agreeing with the diagnosis of human futility. But it then offered a profound and paradoxical solution . "There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God" (2:24).

 We are all familiar with the much quoted "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die . . . a time to weep, and a time to laugh . . . a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing . . . a time for war, and a time for peace" (3:1-8). The preacher comments that in the case of humans God has put "a sense of past and future into their minds" (3:11) And in those directions there is no meaning to be found. There is however a direction of meaning for the present: "There is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live" (3:12). The meaning of life is by finding joy.

 This is one reason why C.S.Lewis called the story of his conversion Surprised by Joy (1955). He chronicled the mysterious experiences of heart longing (he uses the German word sehnsucht) that he had experienced till finally he realized that those longings were precisely what God had in mind for him to enjoy.

 The New Testament defines God as the joy giver "who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment" (1 Timothy 6:17). And the reason is obvious. Parents who love their children work for their joy. Unloving parents make professions of love but they really have another agenda in mind. So if God is love (1 John 4:16), and He is a totally loving parent, our faith is not in a dour moralizer, but in the source of all joy. As Ecclesiastes explained, all God wants of us is that we should enjoy the joys of our life.

 The way joy is welcomed is by thanksgiving. Joy and thanksgiving go together. Joyful people are thankful people, and people who cannot be thankful are miserable. The Old Testament Book of Psalms is full of thanksgiving. In the pain and hurt and futility of life the psalm writer finds himself thankful and his thanksgiving is joy.

 If there is thanksgiving there is already faith because you can't be thankful to chance, or matter, or energy. Which suggests that our world is designed for us to experience those magic moments of joy, and our enjoyment should be expressed as thanksgiving, and when we are thankful we already know God. Suddenly instead of futility there is meaning, and the more we pursue the enjoyment that God has in mind the harsh reality of life looks different.

 "It is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun a few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot" (5:18). That's a wonderful cure for brooding in misery. "They will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts" (5:20).

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