Do you ever struggle to find joy in life? I’m writing this in September 2020, and it feels difficult to have joy. We’ve been in a global pandemic, Covid-19, and nearing 200,000 deaths since March. Wildfires ravaged the west coast of the USA, while hurricanes flood the south. Partisan politics have made the presidential election a bitter contest, and the country feels deeply divided. Racial injustice is all around us, revealing the original sin of a nation.
Life has its ups and its downs. This year feels like a major downer. In the previous post we talked about how generally life follows a pattern of down times that follower times of joy. This is called the Law of Undulation. But what we do when it seems we cannot break out of a negative view of life? What do we do when we struggle to have joy? In other words, how do we respond to the Law of Undulation?
The Teacher tells us. Let’s take a closer look at Ecclesiastes 3, verses 9-15, and I think you’ll see what I mean.
In verse 9, after his poem, he transitions with a question about the poem: “what does a worker gain?” Or as Dorsey translates it, “What is the ultimate significance of all these activities?” He has answered this question numerous times already in Ecclesiastes chapters 1 and 2, so he doesn’t need to answer it again here. What is ultimate significance of life’s extremes? The answer is, “not much, if anything at all.” In the poem (verses 1-8), we can certainly understand that there is an appropriate time and place for all kinds of things. But we can’t understand their ultimate significance.
So in verse 10, the Teacher says that this is a heavy burden God has placed on us. Not very joyful yet, is he? Dorsey’s translation is different, and I think very helpful, because the NIV’s translation is perhaps unnecessarily negative in its view on God. Here’s how Dorsey translates verse 10, “I thought about all that God gives humans to do to occupy them.” See the difference in that? It’s not so much that God has placed a heavy burden on us, but that the Teacher is thinking about how God has given us a life that is cyclical and fleeting. The Teacher is reflecting on the poem in verses 1-8. All those opposites. The Teacher is thinking about them. But what does he think about them?
He tells us in verse 11, and again Dorsey’s translation is very helpful. Let me try to set it up: When the Teacher, in verse 10 says that he thought about all that God gives humans to do to occupy them, now he goes to say in verse 11 (Dorsey’s translation), “I could see that God has designed each activity so that it has an appropriate time to be done. But God has also placed in the human heart a sense that there is a greater overall plan for all things. Nevertheless, he has not given human beings the ability to perceive this greater plan, or to understand God’s agenda from beginning to end.”
In other words, God has placed us in a world of opposites. We have a desire to know that larger picture, but we ultimately cannot know it because it is only God’s to know. So what should we do? Are we just destined to be caught in a fog all our lives? Where is the joy I promised?
Read verses 12-13. Does it sound familiar? What the Teacher has to say in verses 12-13 is very similar to what we heard him teach in 2:24-26 which we studied last week. 2:24-26 was his conclusion to the seven personalities or roles that people utilize in their search for the meaning of life. There he said in 2:24, “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.”
Now in verse 3:12-13, he says, “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God.”
His teaching in 2:24-26 and 3:12-13 is nearly identical. So the Teacher is clearly connecting these two passages. He is developing a theme, and here it is: “While life is cyclical and fleeting, and we may never be able to fully understand all of God’s purposes, God has given us a pathway for joy.”
We are starting to see why my Old Testament professor, Dave Dorsey, said that the book of Ecclesiastes has often gotten a bad rap as the most depressing book of the Bible. He pointed out that the Teacher actually has more references to joy and happiness than the book of Philippians, which is considered to be the Joy book of the Bible. Of course Ecclesiastes is a lot longer than Philippians, but the point remains. Ecclesiastes has an incredibly joyful approach to the meaning of life.
There is another way to look at life, and verses 12-15, present that other view, one that I am very thankful for. Check back tomorrow, as I’ll talk about how Ecclesiastes 3:12-15 was such a help to me in the middle of that dark time.