Ecclesiastes 2:1–11 reads like a dismissal of culture and, in particular, of leisure:
I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man. So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
Laughter, wine, houses, horticulture, animal husbandry, wealth, and music all proved useless to the Preacher. They were for him a kind of madness: “a striving after wind.” But how can this be, given what the Scriptures say elsewhere about these things?
- In Luke 6:21 Jesus uses laughter to describe those who enjoy the favor of God. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.”
- John 2 describes how Jesus “manifested his glory” by miraculously providing good wine at a wedding celebration.
- In Jeremiah 29:5 God tells the exiles in Babylon to “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.”
- Elsewhere God promises flourishing herds and flocks to the remnant of his people who repent and dwell in Zion. For example, in Isaiah 30:23 he says, “In that day your livestock will graze in large pastures.”
- Silver and gold, too, can be a blessing. In Genesis 24:35 Abraham’s servant says, “The Lord has greatly blessed my master, and he has become great. He has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male servants and female servants, camels and donkeys.”
- As for singing, well, all God’s people are singers by definition. About a hundred times in Scripture, we are urged to make music. For example, back in Isaiah 30 the remnant is told, “You shall have a song as in the night when a holy feast is kept” (v. 29).
Interpreting Scripture with Scripture, we see that the most straightforward reading of Ecclesiastes 2 cannot be the correct one. The kinds of culture and leisure in question are not necessarily vain but can be a major component of the abundant life Christ intends for us to have. The passage from Ecclesiastes 2 does give us a clue to its proper interpretation even without the help of the other Scriptures, but we must look closely at what is actually being said there.
Verse 1, taken with verse 11, tells us that to “enjoy yourself” is vanity. What the ESV translates as “enjoy yourself,” the King James Version translates as “enjoy pleasure.” So which is it? As it turns out, both are right. The two Hebrew words, ra’ah towb, literally mean “to see or consider a good or pleasant thing,” but in the context of the Preacher’s discourse, the translators of the ESV and KJV rightly notice that something more than that is being said. The two translations (which date from 2001 and 1611) describe, respectively, the postmodern and classical errors about beauty, both of which are then condemned as vanity.
Taking the ESV’s translation, we know that “enjoy yourself” is exactly what the postmodern aims at. He does not enjoy laughter, wine, or houses. He enjoys himself. If beauty is subjective, then only the subject is left as an object of enjoyment. And of course this is vanity. Taking the KJV’s translation, we describe exactly what the ancient Greeks did. They “enjoy[ed] pleasure.” Seeing beauty as something in the object itself, and setting their eyes on it alone, they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom. 1:23). Pleasure is merely a by-product of our enjoyment of God. To pursue it, rather than God, is, as Lewis put it, to have our hearts broken. The Christian doctrine of leisure avoids both of the pitfalls expressed alternatively in these translations. It teaches us that all things were made for God’s glory, and we find joy in them only insofar as we enjoy God through them. Hence the Preacher concludes in verses 24–25: “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?”
Elsewhere the Bible gives us models of such godly leisure. Adam was put in a garden, which implies both work and contemplative leisure. David, the man after God’s heart, played the lyre “day by day” (1 Sam. 18:10). Jesus celebrated weddings. He “came eating and drinking” (Matt. 11:19). Paul, in an aside, affirms that wealthy Christians may enjoy God’s material gifts: “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17; see also 4:3–4). What 1 Timothy 6 teaches us is that pleasure in its proper place is a good thing. More importantly, it teaches wherein pleasure is found: neither in ourselves nor, ultimately, in the thing that mediates pleasure, but in the Lord. Perhaps here is the basis for distinguishing between idleness (Prov. 31:27; 2 Thess. 3:6–7) and what we might call “recreation” (Gen. 24:63; Ps. 8:3). Idleness is enjoying oneself or the pleasures themselves. Recreation is enjoyment of God, which is part of our chief end.
We enjoy God by pondering his ways (Ps. 77:12). We study his Word, which theologians call “special revelation,” and we study his works of creation and providence, which theologians call “general revelation.” God intends the two kinds of revelation to go together, and each is incomplete without the other. Without the good news of the gospel found in the Bible, the wonders of nature and culture only serve to intensify our alienation from God; we cannot bear such clear examples of the goodness, wisdom, and power of the one we hate. To quote Calvin, “People, immersed in their own errors, are struck blind in such a dazzling theater.” But when the Lord makes known his salvation, all the earth makes a joyful noise as in Psalm 98 (on which Isaac Watts’s hymn “Joy to the World” is based). “Let the sea roar, and all that fills it. . . . Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth.”
Conversely, without the wonders of nature and culture, the Bible is unintelligible. What urgency would the gospel have if we had no existential knowledge of God or any idea of our filth and alienation from him? Why would we care about God’s redemptive purposes? Indeed, sensitivity to general revelation is necessary to appreciate any page of Scripture. Psalm 1 says that the blessed man is like a tree. But what could that possibly mean to someone who is ignorant of, or indifferent to, trees? It seems likely that when God made trees on the third day of creation, part of his purpose was to design a picture of what the blessed man is like. In the book of Job, the Lord answers his great questions—our questions—with an appeal to general revelation (Job 38–41). Jesus teaches us about anxiety by telling us to “consider the lilies” (Matt. 6:28).
There can be little doubt that the leisurely contemplation of general revelation is an essential part of the Christian life and that our capacity for joy depends, in part, on our being good stewards of leisure. A happy person’s leisure will include the direct study of creation (in woodland walks, for example, or in a butterfly collection or in a fun math problem) and of providence (in history), but such a happy person will also learn from other people how to appreciate revelation. The literary and scientific achievements of human culture can, despite their fallibility, aid us in contemplating the glory of God. So, too, can the arts.