Solomon had given himself to searching for where he might find ultimate meaning and satisfaction in this life, yet he had come up empty (Eccl 1:12-18). His discovery, however, didn’t turn him into a grumpy misanthrope. Rather, he began to grasp the place that pleasure has in the life of the believer. Earthly pleasure isn’t the main thing, but it isn’t to be rejected, either. Here’s one example (of many: Eccl 2:24-26; 3:12-13; 3:22; 8:15):
Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.Ecclesiastes 5:18-20
Yet, what’s stunning about the passage we will focus on in this article (Eccl 9:7-10) is that up to this point, Solomon has only commended joy. He has said things like, “there is nothing better” (Eccl 2:24) or, “behold, it’s good and fitting” (Eccl 5:18) or, “I commend joy” (Eccl 8:15). These statements are observations and suggestions. But by Ecclesiastes 9:7-10, Solomon becomes far more aggressive: he now commands you to enjoy life.
What’s interesting about this passage is that it is inserted in between 9:1-6 and 9:11-16 where Solomon grapples with a few of the most painful mysteries of life. In 9:1-6, Solomon reckons with the reality that death is certain and eventually visits all people, regardless of their moral or religious status. In 9:11-16, Solomon observes that life is often unpredictable: the race doesn’t always go to the swift nor the battle to the strong. In light of these painful realities, the question Solomon seeks to answer in 9:7-10 is this: How do you, as a believer who knows and loves God, navigate this painful, unpredictable life? How do you endure life under the sun? This is how:
Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.Ecclesiastes 9:7-10
Notice the first word in this passage: “Go” (9:7a). Does that sound like something you’ve heard before (see Matt 28:18)? Life is full of difficulties and enigmas and troubles and things that you will never be able to figure out this side of eternity. So here is Solomon’s instruction in light of these harsh realities, and it’s an urgent matter: “Stop your worrying and fretting about things you cannot control and that you are never meant to figure out, and go, Christian, get on with living this life that God has given you.” As one commentator has put it: “The first command is ‘Go!’ It’s a wakeup call. There is no time to waste. Stop your complaining. Stop nursing your anger. Stop brooding over your problems. Get over your anxiety.”1 In other words, start enjoying the gift of earthly life!
Again, what’s astonishing about Solomon’s statement here is that it is a command. He has given us a moral imperative to be followed, and we all know God and our Bibles well enough to know that to disobey a command is sin. Obedience is not optional. “Instead of allowing grief to consume one’s life, Solomon urges that whatever remains of the unexplained mystery in our lives must not prevent us from enjoying life. The tendency to brood and to mope about has to be resisted in the lives of those who fear God,” one commentator reminds us. He continues with an admonition, “…take life as a gift from his hand, and receive God’s plan and enablement to enjoy that life.”2
But what, specifically, are we to go and do?
Eat Your Bread and Drink Your Wine
Solomon’s command is for us to savor life joyfully. “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do” (Eccl 9:7). In other words: find enjoyment and pleasure in eating and drinking. What a command! When you are freed from the tyranny of having to find ultimate satisfaction in food and drink, you can find some satisfaction in food and drink, and that is exactly what God intends for His people.
But we also need to consider what else Solomon says in this text. Why should you eat your bread and drink your wine with a merry heart? Solomon gives a surprising reason: “For God has already approved what you do.” What does this mean? Is this a license for unrestrained indulgence in whatever I want? Does this statement mean whatever I do, God approves it by the sheer virtue that it originated from my own volition? No. Such an interpretation would implicate God in approving wickedness, which is impossible (see 1 John 1:5). Wholesale approval of all our actions is not what Solomon is affirming here. Rather, he is revealing his robust theology of creation.
God’s First Command to Humankind
If I were to ask you, “What is the first command in the Bible?” what would you say? You might say, “Be fruitful and multiply,” (Gen 1:26) and that would be a good answer. However, in terms of chronological sequence, the command to be fruitful and multiply would have come later because Adam was created first before the woman, and the command to be fruitful and multiply is given to the man and the woman (see Gen 2:7ff; cf. Gen 1:26).
Let’s refocus the question: What was the first command given to Adam? You might say, “You shall not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” But is that the first command? Let’s look a little closer. “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Gen 2:16).
The first part of the command is God’s instruction to Adam to enjoy the food that God had created for him to enjoy. The reason why many of us would have answered that the first command was “you shall not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil” is that we are still breathing the lie-tainted air that Satan introduced to our spiritual atmosphere six millennia ago. The first command God gave to His human creatures was a command to enjoy the abundant goodness of creation. The lie that Satan introduced to Adam and Eve was that God was keeping enjoyment from them. Consider the content of the Serpent’s temptation. “He said to the woman, ‘Did God actually say, “You shall not eat of any tree in the garden”’” (Gen 3:1)? Satan’s strategy was to flip God’s commandment on its head in order to make it appear as though God was primarily a prohibitor of enjoyment rather than a glad provider and proponent of it!
Yet, given our connection with Adam and Satan’s ability to subtly influence our own thinking, we must ask: Is that how I think of God? I fear that deep down some of us conceive of our Creator in this way. That is, there may be a good number of us who hear God speaking primarily in terms of prohibitions; we simply assume the first command was not to do something because that’s how we naturally think of God.
But this text in Genesis teaches us that God actually initiated His relationship with His human creatures with a command to enjoy what He had provided. Far from standing against His creatures as a prohibitor of pleasure, God’s first move toward His people is to lavish them with every conceivable holy enjoyment. He has created this good world for the benefit and the delight of His creatures. When Solomon commands us to savor life joyfully because God has already approved what we do, he is taking us back to creation and showing us that legitimate, earthly pleasures were given to us by God for our blessing.
Think of it for a moment. God made our bodies to require food in order to grow and thrive, and He could have provided for our daily sustenance by fashioning some kind feeding apparatus that we plugged directly into a tree or plant in order to absorb its nutrients. But He gave us taste buds. The conclusion Solomon wants us to draw? Go, savor life joyfully!
1Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from Ecclesiastes, Foundations for Expository Sermons (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 232.
2Walter Kaiser, Ecclesiastes: Total Life (Chicago: Moody Press, 1979), 98.
You can read more about this topic in Derek’s book, Solomon’s Great Commission: A Theology of Earthly Life published by With All Wisdom Publications.