When God spoke to Job “out of the whirlwind” (Job 38:1, RSV throughout), he told him that when he, God, “laid the foundation of the earth”—that is, created everything that exists—“the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (vv. 4, 7). Which is to say, if we throw our minds back into the past as far as we can imagine, what we find is joy: the stars of God and the sons of God singing and shouting joyfully.
Then go the other direction—as far in the future as we can imagine, into heaven—and we find a similarly joyful pleasure. In Revelation, all creation is gathered around God’s throne, and songs of joy are lifted up by great multitudes in exuberant chorus. In the midst of the assembled joy, 24 elders, representing the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of the church—venerable and dignified figures who represent symbolically the centuries of discipleship and faith in a grand finale—take off their crowns and throw them into the air, pitching them before God’s throne (Rev. 4:1–11). The picture is one of hilarity, almost of frivolity. Think of West Pointers throwing their white hats into the air in the jubilation of graduation or of football players filling the air with their helmets in the triumph of victory.
The story of our faith, our very existence, begins and ends with joy. And between the beginning and the conclusion there is joy: “a river whose streams make glad the city of God” (Ps. 46:4). Jesus said it plainly: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). And Paul wrote to the Philippians how much he knew about and wanted others to share in what he called “joy in the faith” (1:25).
When we leave the pages of Scripture and immerse ourselves in the life of the church, we find the same joy. Christians for 20 centuries now have been exhibiting joy. True, there have been plenty of sad Christians, morose and gloomy followers of Jesus. But the ones who give us hope seem full of joy. When the Roman Catholic Church has canonized our brothers and sisters in faith, giving them the honorary title saint and indicating thereby that they had lived an exemplary life of faith, one of the standard items for qualification is evidence of hilaritas—joy.
Joy at the beginning, joy at the end, joy everywhere in between. Joy is God’s creation and gift. No authentic biblical faith is conceivable that is not permeated with it.
Housecleaning our Lives
How does it happen that so many people get into trouble trying, as they would put it, to have a little fun? Why is it that so many pursue pleasure with such unhappy results? For it is certainly true that a great deal of the misery we survey seems to have been initiated in the pursuit of pleasure, whether through the highs of drugs or the ecstasies of sex or the gluttonies of consumption. If pleasure is from God, why do we get into trouble when we try to get as much of it as we can?
Ecclesiastes, the Preacher, helps us with an answer. I often think of the Preacher as the garbage collector in the kingdom of God. He goes up and down our alleys and backyards, empties out our wastebaskets and attics, and hauls off everything that has accumulated. He gets rid of those things in life that may have been once good in themselves—we paid a lot for them on one whim or another—but actually divert us from a life of faith in God. Just as we clean our houses occasionally and get rid of what doesn’t contribute to good living, so we read the Preacher occasionally to houseclean our lives of the illusions and sentimentalisms that clutter our days as we follow Christ in faith.
One conspicuous area in which we need the Preacher’s help is the pursuit of pleasure, of joy. There is no way to experience God without also experiencing joy. But what happens when we separate the joy from the God who gives the joy? And we wonder why the joy we were looking for has turned into something dull, boring, and meaningless! We need to be rescued from that tiresome fate. The Preacher is on hand to do it with us.
But first a clarification. The Preacher is not going to instruct us in right and wrong pleasures. That is not his style. He is not a moralist. We do live in a moral universe and need to learn to make moral decisions, to choose the right and refuse the wrong, to choose God and deny evil. But the Preacher has more to do with discriminating between the real and the illusory, the authentic and the false, the actual and the fantastic. It is in these matters that the Preacher is a guide. His question is not “What is right?” but “What is real?” His repeated conclusion regarding much of what we value and center our lives on is that it is vanity, “hot air.” One Hebrew scholar I studied under translated it irreverently as “flatulence.”
In that light we are not surprised that in the Preacher there are no lists of good pleasures and bad pleasures, of what is legitimate and illegitimate. His view is that all joy, every pleasure, is God’s gift. Our task is to find out how to enjoy the joy. Joys are profuse and various. But the capacity to enjoy them is questionable. Actual enjoyment of joy is spare in our culture. Reaching for or holding on to joy does not automatically convey the ability to enjoy.
I’ve always been amused by the comment of the novelist Ellen Glasgow on her grandfather, a dour Presbyterian elder, who never once “committed” a joy.
But that’s not the Preacher. He believes ardently in joy. He knows that our deepest likings and impulses are raw material furnished by God to bring us into the presence of God. But he also knows they can be perverted and deflected into a way of life that is sheer boredom and cynicism. The intent of joy is to lead us to wholeness, but the ways we engage in it frequently lead to malaise.
The Preacher makes his point by drawing from King Solomon (who may or may not have been “The Preacher” himself). Solomon, who began as the wisest and ended as the most foolish of the Hebrew kings, provides a vivid illustration of joy gone wrong.
Ecclesiastes 2 begins, “Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself” (v. 1). I am now going to paraphrase the rest of this section (see verses 4–8):
I am going to pursue pleasure. I am going to have more joy than anyone has ever had. The first thing I will do is organize the world around me to suit my taste. I will construct great houses so I will have everything absolutely at my convenience. I will make vineyards and gardens so what I want to look at and what I want to taste will be completely under my control. I will fashion parks and pools so all the land and water around me will be just the way I want them. I will take absolute control by arranging everything exactly the way I want it.
The next thing I will do is turn everything into a commodity so I can use it my own way, and the most convenient way to do that is simply to multiply it. Each item will lose its individual quality and be under my control. I will multiply servants so each loses identity and becomes a mere robot doing my will; I will multiply flocks and herds so they lose individuality and become simply food and clothing; I will multiply silver so it is not a means for exchanging goods in personal relation with others but will put my power and importance on display; I will multiply concubines so each woman loses personality and becomes an object for my personal pleasure.
The world will be at my beck and call. I will be in complete control of every pleasure and every thing.
The Preacher brings this soliloquy to a climax by having Solomon say, “Having arranged the world, I will indulge in it completely: Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept from my heart no pleasure” (see verse 10).
Idols Come to Life
That exposes the fraud of the whole enterprise. Note the impersonalism in the statement that his eyes tell him what to do. What he sought to control now controls him. He loses the capacity to say yes or no, to choose or discriminate. He is swept into an orgy of indulgence. The world of pleasure that he has depersonalized so he could control it now depersonalizes him. He began by arranging the world for his pleasure, and now he is part of the arrangement.
He made pleasure into an idol he could use, and now the idol has a life of its own and is using him. He has come under the control of the stimuli he had supposed he could control. He is reduced to the level of Pavlov’s dog, salivating at the sound of the bell of pleasure. He is a knee-jerk king, stupidly obedient to whatever his glands command. He is completely in the clutches of what I once heard described as gonadic determinism.
The Preacher has used the Solomon mask as a prop in a brief charade, showing the crudeness in supposing that getting things and arranging the world to our whims has anything to do with joy. No matter how great a reputation you have for wisdom, if all you can do with it is buy castles and bed whores, you are a fool all the same. The Preacher is not impressed by a big name, even if the name is Solomon. He looks behind the reputation and sees only alienation and vulgarization. Making and getting are dead-end streets to joy: “I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after the wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (2:11).
The Solomon mistake in regard to God’s gift of joy can be summarized in two statements:
First, you must not pursue pleasure. Pleasures are gifts to be enjoyed, not goals to be pursued. No pleasure, however delightful, provides a reason for living or a goal for growing. The pursuit of pleasure leads into a swamp of boredom. The foundational human appetite is for God. God has filled the world with all manner of delight. To enjoy it we need the light touch of one who accepts a gift. We need protection from the sweaty, enslaving compulsions of taking a God-gift and immediately de-godding it into an idol. It is possible to accept all the gifts of life and enjoy them completely only if we refuse to make gods out of them.
No one is more insistent than the Preacher that we enjoy life. At the same time, no one is more careful in warning of the danger of investing these enjoyments with a life of their own. We will pray, then, for grace to live joyously and abundantly and for caution to live discerningly and carefully. We will be wary of sin and enthusiastic in grace, watchful of temptation but awake to the Spirit.
Second, you cannot purchase pleasure. If we can leave off the anxious work of plunder long enough, we will discover the occupation of joy. Joys are given by God; they can only be received by us. We can neither create them nor earn them, neither hoard nor accumulate them. In our culture every commonplace novelty is breathlessly proclaimed as an original creation that we can acquire by purchase.
But joys cannot be bought, only received. The one thing we can do to develop a capacity for enjoyment is to practice generosity. In the words of the Preacher, “Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days” (11:1), a kind of reckless sharing that imitates the divine largesse. Or in a paraphrase of Jesus’ words, “We cannot gain the world except that we lose our own soul, but he who loses his own soul will find it” (see Matt. 16:26).
Everything Is on God’s Side
C. S. Lewis made a specialty of probing and understanding joy. All through his works there are references to it with wise counsel for those who would grow in it. In one of his wittiest books, The Screwtape Letters, a senior devil instructs a novice devil, Wormwood, who has been assigned the task of keeping a certain man from becoming a Christian. After Wormwood fails in that assignment, his task shifts to tempting this new follower of Christ. The novice tempter thinks he can ruin the young Christian by leading him in the path of pleasure.
His boss, the senior devil Screwtape, reprimands him: “Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s [God’s] ground. . . . It is his invention, not ours. He made the pleasures. . . . [God’s] a hedonist at heart. . . . Everything has to be twisted before it’s any use to us. . . . Nothing is naturally on our side.”
And, conversely, everything is by its nature on God’s side. Every pleasure. Every joy. Every delight. The Preacher opens our eyes to the distortions and corruptions of pleasure—our attempts to pursue it, our attempts to purchase it—and leaves us free to accept it as God’s gift and to enjoy it as his will. One of the most joyful passages to come from his pen is:
Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already approved what you do.
Let your garments be always white. (Ecc. 9:7–8)
Adapted from As Kingfishers Catch Fire. Copyright © 2017 by Eugene H. Peterson. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more