Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always bewhite; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.
The American writer and gadfly H. L. Mencken quipped that a Puritan was someone who lived with “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” While Mencken is perhaps a bit unfair to the real, historical Puritans, he is right in pointing out how religion can sometimes be a joyless, somber, and dour business.
Mencken’s jab reminds me of the apocryphal story of a young monk assigned to help the scribes copy by hand the old canon laws of the church. As they worked the young monk noticed that they were actually copying copies of copies. Being young and curious, he wondered if any errors might have been made over time. He knew that if an error was never picked up it would be continued on in all subsequent copies.
The young monk mentioned his concern to the aged abbot who thought the young man had a good point. So the abbot crept down into the dark, dusty archives that had not been opened in hundreds of years. Hours went by and no one saw the old abbot. Finally the young monk and the other worried monks went down to look for him. They found the abbot banging his head against the wall and crying: “We missed the ‘R’, we missed the ‘R’!”
When the monks asked the abbot what was wrong, he sobbed, “The word is ‘celebrate’!” And in today’s text, the wise man of Ecclesiastes is reminding us that God’s word to us is: “Celebrate!”
Perhaps more than any other book of the Bible, Ecclesiastes tackles head on the perplexities and complexities of life “under the sun”, or this side of heaven. Ecclesiastes stares in the face the seeming meaninglessness and unfairness of the way life can play out. Ecclesiastes declares again and again that without God all of life is truly “Vanity of vanity, all is vanity!” But rather than being a rant and scream against life’s absurdity, Ecclesiastes is a repeated chorus to enjoy life and celebrate the preciousness of each day: “There is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy each day for as long as they live” (Ecclesiastes 2:24, 3:12, 3:22, 5:18, 8:15).
Against the backdrop of eternity, Ecclesiastes urges readers to take pleasure in life’s simple delights: bread, wine, and the nearness of people we love. Instead of sliding into despair over the shortness and uncertainty of life, we are to use that awareness to celebrate each precious moment. Life will never be without difficulty or pain, so “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” (Thoreau).
In this carpe diem section of the book, Ecclesiastes counsels: “Let your garments always be white.” In Biblical times, black garments were symbolic of mourning and white ones symbolic of joy and celebration. White clothes were difficult to keep clean and were kept in the back of the closet, reserved for the feasts and high holy days. But Ecclesiastes teaches that each day is a high and holy day, each day is special and to be celebrated. Put on your ‘white garments’, be glad and rejoice.
It is never wrong, or sinful, to delight in the life God gives us. In fact Ecclesiastes says that God delights in our delight as He “has long ago approved of what you do.” Joy and delight are God’s will for us today. It is never self-indulgent to enjoy and celebrate life’s goodness. “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).
C. S. Lewis, in his fictional classic Screwtape Letters, is writing from the perspective of a senior devil giving instruction to a junior devil. There is a section in the book where the senior devil scolds the junior for allowing his subject — the human that he is trying to tempt — to read a book he enjoyed, and take an enjoyable walk and have some tea. The senior warns the junior devil how dangerous it is to allow his subject the simple enjoyment of life: “Were you so ignorant as not to see the danger in this? How could you have failed to see that a real pleasure was the last thing you ought to have let him meet?” To rejoice and celebrate life is to be well down the road that leads to God’s Kingdom.
Don’t postpone joy until tomorrow! Go ahead, eat your bread with enjoyment, drink your wine with a merry heart, and delight in those you love. Life is God’s gift, so throw yourself into it for as long as it lasts.
Take a moment in your day to consider and savor the translation of today’s passage from The Message:
Seize life! Eat bread with gusto,
Drink wine with a robust heart.
Oh yes—God takes pleasure in your pleasure!
Dress festively every morning.
Don’t skimp on colors and scarves.
Relish life with the spouse you love
Each and every day of your precarious life.
Each day is God’s gift. It’s all you get in exchange
For the hard work of staying alive.
Make the most of each one!
(Ecclesiastes 9:7-9, The Message)
Yes, the word is “Celebrate!”–Tim Smith
Photo by TuTuWoN