Summary: God is the source of all joy; that is, if you are His.
God is the Source of all Joy
So far, the picture presented by the Preacher is pretty depressing. It is so negative that we have to be on guard not to get caught up in the gloom ourselves. We do this by continuing to remember that Solomon is presenting an under the sun view of life rather than a life centered in the life of God, a life that has been redeemed from despair in this life and life to come by His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
The Preacher has just finished a bitter complaint about the uselessness and futility of all his hard work which included the works of mind and hands, although it was his slaves, servants, and fellow Israelites who actually did most of the work. And not we come to one of those refreshing passages in Ecclesiastes. What is stated here is not likely to challenge us who are Christians because it agrees with what we now think. The Preacher notes that we ought to make the best of life as a gift from God. This is reasonably orthodox other than even our labor itself is the gift of God and not of ourselves. At least it sounds so much more positive and useful to us. First of all, the Preacher tells us to take joy in eating, and drinking and the labors of our hands. Solomon rightly knows that these are truly the gift of God. It is God who is the source of all joy, a joy in all things. In this he sounds like the Apostle Paul. Has the Preacher found religion?
If we are to examine this text carefully, we would have to conclude that the answer for Solomon was, “No!” He does not write as though this was his experience at all, especially when we take what he says here in context of what he has just said and will say later. He speaks like a reprobate. He saw others with this joy. But it did not seem personal. In fact he speaks as though he was cursed. Why does God bless others with the gift of being able to enjoy life and not him? After all, no one had ever worked harder to find joy in life than Solomon. To these who experienced the joy of God, it was as if they never worked for it at all. So the Preacher is making a complaint against the arbitrariness of God who has not been fair. If we do not see this attitude, we will misread the text.
The Scripture tells us that Solomon amassed great wealth. We also know that God gave this to Solomon in addition to wisdom because Solomon asked for wisdom and not wealth. But here he acts as if he earned all this wealth himself. And the proof of his despair is that he accuses God of giving him the task of the wicked, to amass great wealth so that it could be given to whoever God pleases to give it to. Solomon felt that God was redistributing the wealth that he had himself amassed, not regarding that he had been gifted with it by God. This is true under the sun thinking. He knows he is a sinner. And he knows that he is very distant from God. So he concludes that because God is going to redistribute the labor of his hands to those who are not worthy or at least as worthy as himself. Therefore, he concludes with the same despairing cry he echoes throughout the book that his wicked work that he thinks God gave him to do is futile chasing after the wind.
Now that we see the text in its context, we are in a position to learn from it. It is true enough that God is the source of all joy. We as Christians know by Paul that we can even rejoice in our tribulations because God works out all things for good to those who love him, who “are the called after his purpose”. We also are taught by Scripture and by the Westminster-Shorter catechism to give thanks to god for all that we think and do. So we can read out Christian theology into this text and make something good out of it.
The question I would ask is: “How does the worldly man whose life is controlled by things under the sun think about such a passage?” If we are going to engage the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we will need to address the question. Sometime we are unaware that the world thinks about things a lot differently than we do. We assume we have the Bible and our theological terms in common. But is this a correct assumption? If we feel we are the elect, then we take joy in that God provides in all things for us. We can even take this to an extreme as they do in the health and wealth gospel that God is spoiling the goods of the Egyptians to give it to us. We sometimes forget the admonition of Paul that we will indeed reign with him, but there is a prerequisite, if we suffer with Him. We are called to earthly tribulation before heavenly glory, and we would do well to remember that.