My Thanksgiving sermon this year was heavily influenced by a presentation I heard by Dr Dave Bland at the Great Lakes Lectureship in late October. As he taught on the book of Ecclesiastes a couple of things caught my attention. First, the Jews today read Ecclesiastes during the Feast of Tabernacles (sukkot), which has a lot in common with American Thanksgiving. Second, he highlighted Ecclesiastes’ emphasis on joy, which was news to me.
There are seven joy passages within Ecclesiastes. (2:24-26; 3:9-14; 3:22; 5:17-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 11:7-10) Scholars disagree regarding their significance, but the viewpoint Dr Bland presented establishes these passages as the core message of the book. My message focused on the first of the joy passages found in 2:24-26.
In the first eleven verses of chapter 2, Qoheleth (the Hebrew name used by the author, a word thought to mean ‘Teacher”) searches for meaning by pursuing pleasure. His quest is summed up in v10, “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.” And yet in v11 the pursuit only resulted in emptiness, “a chasing after the wind.”
Instead in v24 he concludes that the best thing we can do is to “eat, drink and find satisfaction in our toil.” Over in 9:7-9 the eating and drinking is placed in a context of enjoying life with family, specifically, one’s wife. The enjoyment is not found in the food itself, but in the context of loving relationships.
This sounds to me a lot like Thanksgiving, or Christmas, dinner. A meal with family and friends, contentedly resting from work, and celebrating God’s goodness. Anyone who experiences conflict within their family may regard this picture as unrealistically idyllic. And for many people it is. Perhaps that’s why Qoheleth describes this scene as a gift “from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?”
We don’t obtain meaning for our lives through pursuing pleasure, but through placing God at the centre of our lives. When we do this He allows us to enjoy life. While we might often see God in the big areas of our life: family, job, and health, God also makes possible the enjoyment of many small moments.
I hope that each reader will at some point pause their festivities and notice God around their dinner table.
- Do you have a favorite “small part” of Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner that reminds you of God’s presence & provision?
- Is this an interesting way of approaching Ecclesiastes? Should I write some more on this topic?
- At first glance Ecclesiastes is a strange book to read at Thanksgiving. What would you suggest as an appropriate Scripture passage?
If you’re trying to understand how these “joy passages” serve as a theme for the book a couple of extra points might prove helpful.
- Each ‘joy passage” addresses the “meaningless” passages before and sometimes after, so you need to read them in context.
- The phrase “People can do nothing better” needs to be read not as an exasperated sigh that “the only thing left to do is…”, but as a declaration that “The best thing that people can possible do is…”