Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
John 1:29-42; James 2:14-26; Ecclesiastes 2:17-26; Jeremiah 7-8
The author of Ecclesiastes has had every pleasure under the sun, but something is still missing (2:2, 11). He has worked hard and accumulated great wealth, yet at the same time gained nothing (2:11). He became wise, and saw its benefits, but also saw one of the deep ironies of life: in the end, everyone dies and is soon forgotten (2:14-16). Little wonder he begins today’s passage saying he hates life.
Many have come to a similar conclusion. The ironies, tragedies, cruelties and evils of life can leave people feeling miserable. Pain can drive people to the point of literally hating their lives, of seeing no value in them, and then seeking to end them. Others continue to seek meaning in their work or their children. They spend their lives providing either the bare necessities, or amassing huge fortunes. Yet in the end they must hand everything over to those who did not work for it (2:21). For those who seek meaning in their work or their careers, there is no meaning. As they realise this, their work becomes toil. They are in pain over life. They can’t even get a good night’s sleep as anxiously lie awake at night. Such a life is meaningless.
Many live lives where their joy is dependent on their circumstances. Then, during financial crises, suicide rates increase. For example, researchers noted that unemployment and suicide rates gradually fell in most European countries between 2000 and 2008 (The Lancet 2011;378:124-5). These trends took an abrupt change in direction when the recession hit in 2008. The most severe economic down-turns were in Greece and Ireland, also hit the hardest by suicide where the rates increased by 17% and 13%, respectively. Such statistics reflect the harsh realities of life described in Ecclesiastes.
But the author of Ecclesiastes offers something different. We can seek meaning for our lives by pursuing pleasure or working hard, or we can labour diligently and enjoy the simple pleasures of life (food and drink) because we have found meaning elsewhere. Some claim Ecclesiastes advocates an Epicurean approach to life like that rejected 1 Corinthians 15:22: eat, drink and be merry, because tomorrow we die. While the two phrases are similar, we should not read our familiarity with the latter into Ecclesiastes. The expression simply states that we can and should enjoy our food, drink and work. At regular intervals through Ecclesiastes the author calls on us to accept the pleasures of life with joy (2:26; 5:19; 8:15; 9:7). We do this by seeing our lives and the simple joys of life as gifts from God. The Hebrew term translated here as ‘seeing’ is used almost fifty times in Ecclesiastes and generally means to focus one’s interest and thoughts outside oneself at something else. Rather than looking at things to control or manipulate the circumstances of our lives, we can look at God’s creation for the joy it can bring us. That can bring a sense of gratitude which helps us cope with the difficulties of life.
The author of Ecclesiastes looks at life as a gift from God to be enjoyed. The person who labours or pursues wisdom within the context of a deepening relationship with God, and intentionally sees God’s goodness in life, will find wisdom, knowledge and enjoyment. But those who seek their own meaning in life, or to control their fate, will find only meaninglessness. Their efforts are like chasing the wind and the results have the weight of a breath (hebel). If we pursue meaning, wisdom and happiness as the first things in life, we will gain nothing in the end. That is meaningless. But when our first pursuit is God, we will find him, and, as second things, wisdom and happiness (Proverbs 2:5).