Every year The Living Church’s student essay contest draws several excellent submissions. The first-place essay will be published in the October issue of The Living Church, but several other essays were of such quality that we have decided to publish them here on Covenant.
By Jeffri Chiam
The history of interpreting Ecclesiastes has always been filled with controversies, especially when it comes to reconciling the positive “enjoy life” passages and negative “vanity” conclusions. This essay argues that the enjoy life passages have three functions in Ecclesiastes. First, these passages present life as a half-full-half-empty glass that can be interpreted optimistically or pessimistically. Second, these passages compel the readers’ immediate realization of the differences between God and humans. Third, these passages lay down a life-long direction for the readers to fear God despite their differing views on their half-full-half-empty-glass life. Finally, the modern-day implications of the enjoy life passages will be discussed.
Enjoy Life with Vanity
Since the enjoy life passages are often framed by the vanity statements, the enjoy life passages cannot be studied without a prior understanding of vanity. The definition of vanity will ultimately shape the view of the book as a whole. A pessimistic definition of vanity tends to drive a pessimistic interpretation of the enjoy life passages, and vice versa. It is argued that restricting vanity to a single term definition is unreasonable, since it carries a fluid nature depending on the different contexts. The contexts of vanity could convey various meanings, ranging from vanity (1:11, 3:19), irony (2:19-21, 8:10) and transience (6:12, 11:10). Therefore, the translation of vanity as a symbol with multiple referents (including transience, emptiness, irony and even frustration) is a more holistic interpretation.
In the prologue (1:2) and epilogue (12:8), the narrator emphatically cried that everything is vanity. In this vain life, there are six vain situations that have been followed by enjoy life statements. These six vain situations relate to the topics of work (2:17-23), time for everything (3:1-8), death (3:18-21), riches (5:10-17), injustice (8:14), and humanity’s common destiny (9:3-6). Immediately after each vanity discussion, the Teacher in Ecclesiastes asserts “enjoy life” as his bookend response. The challenge is whether these enjoy life passages were meant to be interpreted as an optimistic or pessimistic response toward the vanity of life, or whether the tensions between the vain situations and the enjoy life responses should coexist.
Life as a Half-Full-Half-Empty Glass
The first function of these tension-creating enjoy life passages is to present life as a half-full-half-empty glass that could be interpreted optimistically or pessimistically. First, the enjoy life passages present life positively, as a relatively filled cup. The Teacher describes the pleasureas of life (and even the ability to enjoy them) as God’s gifts (2:26, 3:13, 5:18, 8:15, 9:9) to mankind. God takes pleasure in humanity taking pleasure (9:7). Enjoy life statements seem to be the Teacher’s answer to the vanity of life. Mortals are to enjoy life through their simple living and in the fear of God.
Second, the enjoy life passages could also paint life negatively as a relatively drained cup. The Teacher’s quest in Ecclesiastes is to search for the “gain” from all his labor under the sun (1:3, 2:22, 3:9, 5:11). Soon, he concludes that nothing was gained under the sun (2:11) and even doubts the gain of wisdom (2:15), toil (3:9, 5:16), and proper conduct (6:8). The Teacher realizes that the best reward he could receive from his labor is only his “lot” (3:22, 5:18-20, 9:7-10). However, the unsatisfactory and temporary nature of this lot suggests that this is not the answer to the Teacher’s quest for “profit.” At best, the lot of pleasures can only distract and numb us to the painful vanity of life.
Such is the enigmatic effect of the enjoy life passages. The enjoy life passages are filled with both optimistic and pessimistic messages. It seems impossible to make one view subservient to another. On one hand, enjoying life is undeniably God’s gift for humankind; on the other hand, enjoying life fails to live up to the Teacher’s expectation for profit. We enjoy God’s favor with the blessings of enjoying life; however, we are also stuck in a broken world filled with injustice and absurdity. There is no one-size-fits-all conclusion for the Teacher’s reading of the enjoy life activities.
The Teacher’s final advice in 11:7-10 shows a much-nuanced enjoy life approach. One should enjoy life with the view of the looming days of darkness (11:7-9) and follow one’s heart with the view of God’s coming judgment (11:9). Although the tensions between the optimistic and pessimistic understandings of enjoying life are not solved by the Teacher, the narrator surprisingly affirms the Teacher’s message as “upright and true” (12:10) and one that is “given by one Shepherd” (12:11). Both the Teacher and narrator seem to agree that life is not always either black or white, but consists of both.
This essay agrees with Craig Bartholomew that both optimistic and pessimistic messages should be held together. He advocates that the juxtaposition of the enjoy life passages is not a problem but a feature of the book that draws the readers to join the Teacher in his quest to search for the answer to these gaps. However, differing from Bartholomew, I argue that the unique feature of the enjoy life passages intends to present life as a half-full-half-empty glass. With a positive lens, life is a relatively filled glass; with a negative lens, life is a relatively emptied glass. Instead of two juxtaposition glasses, life is a single half-full-half-empty glass.
Immediate Effect: Realize the Differences between God and Humanity
Bartholomew opines that the tensions of the enjoy life passages are caused by the irreconcilable contradictions between the Teacher’s life experience and Edenic vision. He suggests that the solution to these tensions is to remember God as Creator and view him as central. Transforming from an autonomous epistemology to a God-centred epistemology allows affirmation to enjoy life despite its vanity. But why would the Teacher’s tensions drive him to transform his epistemology? This essay argues that it is the half-full-half-empty nature of enjoy life that compels the Teacher to recognize his differences with God which then humbles and leads him on the path of a God-centred epistemology.
The power difference between God and humanity is presented as a stark contrast between God’s superiority and humanity’s inferiority. God could determine the recipients of rewards for toils (2:26) while humanity has absolutely no say in the matter (1:18). God’s deeds endure forever (3:14), yet humanity can neither fathom nor change his doings (3:11-14). Any enjoying of life is a God-given lot (3:22, 5:18-20, 9:7-10) and not a human-achieved gain. God is the ultimate judge of all (3:17, 12:14) but humanity does not have any clue about the afterlife (3:22, 9:10). Humans can only be certain of their common destiny — death (3:18-19, 9:3-7). Such a powerful and unfathomable God might have resulted in the Teacher’s distant view of God, which explains his usage of the generic Elohim rather than the covenantal Yahweh for God.
The difference in desire between God and humanity: Despite the Teacher’s tremendous toils under the sun (2:4-9, 11), the reward he received is a pleasure. The Teacher considers it merely as a lot rather than the gain he has expected. The Teacher demands something more satisfying, more permanent, more wholesome. Perhaps this is because God has set eternity in his heart without giving him the ability to understand his deeds (3:11). The Teacher is created with the desire for more, but he does not have the means to find the gain to satisfy that desire. The Teacher desires a full-glass life, yet God keeps it as a half-full-half-empty glass. In short, the immediate effect of the enjoy life passages is to compel readers to realize humanity’s inferiority and inability to achieve gain autonomously. This in turn prepares readers to accept the narrator’s answer for the way to true gain.
Lifelong Effect: Fear God
If the Teacher, in all his riches, wisdom, and power, cannot fill up or even change the state of the half-full-half-empty glass life with his enjoying of life, this should drive readers to search elsewhere for the answer to gain. In 12:1-14, the focus shifts from a human-centered to a God-centred perspective. The Teacher instructs the young man (11:9) to remember God as his Creator (12:1); the narrator reminds his son that God is the Shepherd and Judge (12:11-14). With the young man and son, readers are called to turn their focus away from the half-full-half-empty glass, trying to interpret the glass and controlling the state of the glass, for human attempts have no effect on the glass. They are to acknowledge that this half-full-half-empty glass life does not have the answer to gain.
Instead, readers are called to remember God the Creator and fear God the Judge, for he is the ultimate glass-owner. God sets the awareness of eternity in human hearts and grants us the desire for true gain to fill the deep craving of our hearts. If there is anyone who has the answer to gain, it will only be God . Therefore, the right response is to fear God and keep his commandments (12:13). Humbled readers should readily accept this as their whole duty and pursuit. After journeying through the Teacher’s life under the sun, the narrator now subtly brings the readers back to the beginning of Proverbs — the fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:7). He wants his readers to know that fearing God is not the last mile for the prize of knowledge and gain; fearing God is the beginning of a lifelong journey to knowledge and gain. Such is the lifelong impact that Ecclesiastes is aiming for all its readers through their journey in the enjoy life passages.
These enigmatic texts have drawn mixed applications in modern readings. One negative example is seen in the postmodern biblical readings of liberal scholars. For instance, Unik sees the tensions of Ecclesiastes as hinting at the Teacher’s homosexuality. He argues the Teacher wants his young friend to look good by keeping his garments white and anointing his head with oil (9:8). Such liberal reading totally disregards that the purpose of the enjoy life passages is to drive readers to readily accept and respond to the narrator’s call to fear God.
Positively, the diverse readings of enjoy life passages (within the narrator’s frames and purpose) give freedom to readers to respond differently to the life under the sun. Depending on the season of life, some may view life positively or negatively. Indeed, there is no easy answer for life or application for wisdom. Learning from the narrator’s patience for the struggling Teacher will help readers to better journey with people in their ups and downs. Even when the answers to life seem to be elusive, God as the creator, owner, and redeemer of the glass can lead us to a life of wisdom which begins, continues, and ends with the fear of God.
In summary, the enjoy life passages have three functions in Ecclesiastes. First, they honestly present the complexity and messiness of life, just like a half-full-half-empty glass could carry an optimistic or a pessimistic interpretation. Second, the enjoy life passages reveal the great differences between God and humanity and humble readers before God. Third, the passages lead readers to a life of wisdom by fearing God, despite their differing views on their half-full-half-empty-glass life. Finally, the enigmatic nature of the passages does not justify sinful hedonism, but reminds us of how we can better journey with others in this broken life with wisdom.
Jeffri Chiam is a student at Sydney Missionary & Bible College. He is married to Lydia and they long for Christ to be known in Malaysia and beyond. When he is not reading, he enjoys playing basketball. He is a long-time supporter of the Los Angeles Lakers.
 The interpretation of Miller’, Fuhr,’ and Meek’. See Russell L. Meek, “Twentieth- and Twenty-first-century Readings of Hebel (הֶבֶל) in Ecclesiastes,” Currents in Biblical Research 14(3), 288.
 See Iain Provan’s interpretation in Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (Michigan: Zondervan Academic, 2011), 39.
 See Richard P. Belcher Jr.’s interpretation in Finding Favour in the Sight of God: A Theology of Wisdom Literature (England: Apollos, 2018), 140.
 Craig G. Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes (Michigan: Baker Academic, 2009), 355.
 Ibid., 153.
 Ibid., 354-58.
 Belcher, Finding Favour in the Sight of God, 179.
 Bartholomew, Ecclesiastes, 42.
 Uri Wernik, “Will the Real Homosexual in the Bible Please Stand Up?” Theology & Sexuality 11.3 (2005): 47-62.
 Ibid., 62.