Next to the goodness of God and the pain of living under the sun, the next big theme of Ecclesiastes is the enjoyment of life under the sun – a theme that seems to fly in the face of the previous one. How can Solomon spend so much time fleshing out the pain of life and then turn around and say that it was still possible to enjoy the very life that caused his misery?
The foundation for this theme is found in the first “lightbulb” moment of the book near the end of chapter 2. Having reached the darkest moments of his despair, there is a sudden change in the book’s tone as Solomon begins to connect the dots between God’s goodness and life under the sun. Solomon writes that “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?” (Ecc 2:24-25). Martin Luther remarked that this passage is “one that explains everything preceding and following it. . . [it is] the point of the whole book”, and while it might be up for debate if this particular passage summaries the entire book, it is undeniable that this is a high point of Ecclesiastes, and one the book’s biggest conclusions.
Solomon, up until the end of chapter 2, has described the extent to which life under the sun is miserable and brief, and that if this is all life has to offer, then despair is the only appropriate response. But Solomon knows that once God enters the equation, everything changes, and while the world cannot offer lasting enjoyment or satisfaction in life, God can. Enjoyment of our life and our work is not intrinsic to life or work itself; as Solomon makes clear, enjoyment of our life and work “is from the hand of God”, and as Solomon has painstakingly detailed up to this point, “apart from him, who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” The answer to this question is that nobody can have lasting enjoyment apart from God, and to try to find lasting enjoyment apart from him and under the sun is to try to shepherd vapors together. Only the eternal God, from whom we receive our existence, is able to provide proper and permanent enjoyment of his creation.