Written by Paul J. Bucknell on June, 23, 2020
The Gladness of Life (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20)
“18 Here is what I have seen to be good and fitting: to eat, to drink and enjoy oneself in all one’s labor in which he toils under the sun during the few years of his life which God has given him; for this is his reward. 19 Furthermore, as for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, He has also empowered him to eat from them and to receive his reward and rejoice in his labor; this is the gift of God. 20 For he will not often consider the years of his life, because God keeps him occupied with the gladness of his heart.” (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20 NASB)
Solomon throughout the Book of Ecclesiastes instructs us not to lose the best of life by focusing on achieving our end goals but enjoy the rewards God provides along the way. Life is tough enough; take breaks along the way, enjoy what God has given you be it ever so small, and you will be able to nurture your life and relationship with God.
Families weather many hard stages of life, which present many unwelcomed difficulties. These troubles can originate from sickness, struggles at work, misunderstandings, pressure from in-laws, financial issues, differences in opinion, problems from the past, etc.… Our purpose is not to enumerate the many issues that we confront but learn how to incorporate “gladness of heart” amidst the trials that arise.
God desires that we discover and enjoy the richness of life that He gives despite the challenges that we face. Solomon calls them rewards, which might include simple provisions of food, drink, and clean air. All of these are the gifts of God.
I remember that decade I pastored a congregation (sometimes two), raised and homeschooled our eight children. Wow, those years flew by. The key test question is, “Was I so busy that I couldn’t enjoy those years?” I believe I enjoyed the “gladness of heart” along the way. By prioritizing my time with the Lord each day, God helped me to take breaks for packed schedules, take trips to Florida, go on weekly dates with my wife, enjoy my relationships with our children like when reading a book to them, etc. I couldn’t have done this without the Lord’s help. I would have got consumed in the unlimited load of ministry or lose valuable time worrying about preparation.
I’m not saying I got this down perfectly. When talking with my now-grown son, he reflected why we didn’t go camping more than that once or twice. Although I loved such experiences when growing up, I guess I dismissed these opportunities because of my wife and oldest daughter’s asthma. And so, though we had a tent, we hardly used it. I wanted to make camping out a whole family event, but I never made it happen. I did, however, take my children, those interested, hiking in the glorious White Mountains. My son, however, felt these one-day excursions as inadequate. That conversation made me think a bit.
People’s lives can get extremely busy—so busy and distracted that they look back and observe a black hole of nothingness. They dutifully raised their children and worked hard, but found no joy. We ended up living for our lives rather than enjoying the many moments of each day.
I’d like to challenge you to look and achieve God’s higher goal for your lives. God wants you to maintain a sense of joy through all your days, including during your more difficult times. The New Testament verses like “Rejoice always” (Phil 4:4) build upon this more profound principle that Solomon identified. How does it work? Let me share a few thoughts.
(1) Stresses of life are typical
First, we should not think we’re the only ones suffering from the busyness and distractions of life; they are universal (1 Pet 1:6). The stresses of life, arising from mankind’s curse, sometimes stem from our poor personal decisions while others come from people about us. Consider them as typical rather than unusual. Don’t allow Satan to get you to think that God does not care for you. His love is settled; He sent His Son to die for us. God is cheering for our success as we forge through our struggles.
“In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials” (1 Peter 1:6).
(2) God furnishes many abundant promises
Second, Peter speaks about how we live in light of his marvelous promises—“His precious and magnificent promises” (2 Peter 1:4). We live as creatures of hope (hope is used 73 times in the NT), knowing God thoroughly and eternally loves us through Christ. These promises are like magic keys opening doors of possibility where none formerly existed.
(3) Look for God’s gladness
One major theme of Ecclesiastes summons us to focus on the gladness that God has given us. The New Testament regularly repeats its call for us to take joy in the Lord. Through faith, we can hold onto the promises of God so that we can live above our circumstances and personal struggles—at home, at work, or anywhere we end up. This inherent promise enables us to step back from our busy lives and enjoy what God has given to us.
“So I commended pleasure, for there is nothing good for a man under the sun except to eat and to drink and to be merry, and this will stand by him in his toils throughout the days of his life which God has given him under the sun” (Ecc 8:15).
Most of us wrongly conclude joy means the times we are hassle free, but God wants us to enjoy the gifts that He has given to us even during our struggles. For example, my wife and I are presently facing special needs in ministry and life, and so—because our ministry is one of faith and income fluxes, I prayed. Today, we received a surprise check. We are glad not just for the check or those who sent it along, but also for God who stirred them up weeks ago to answer our yesterday’s prayer. When we deliberate on His gracious ways of caring for us, we nurture our love and appreciation for Him.
Even marriage provides that unchanging life commitment so that spouses can find delight even in impoverished situations.
“Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun” (Ecc 9:9).
(4) Keep God first
Joy happens when we refuse to identify our lives with our roles, positions, and life responsibilities. We are more than the sum of these; we are God’s specially created beings made in His image so we can reflect His wisdom, love, and life on earth.
Whatever we pursue on earth will ultimately fail us. Solomon says that if we pursue riches, they will not satisfy. If we seek after pleasures, they will not gratify us. And so, our pursuits on earth end up empty. If we idolize our family or spouse, as much as they are gifts from God, they will not satisfy (Mat 6:33). We need to step back and realize that God first made us for fellowship with Him, our Creator.
The book of Ecclesiastes concludes by focusing on God’s greater purpose for our lives. This is, after all, the message of Ecclesiastes (Ecc 12:1). I’m not saying God’s purpose excludes caring for our family or spouse; that’s a foolish conclusion. God unites us with Him to maintain fellowship with Him (1 John 1:4)—a point we often forget. J. Hudson Taylor rightly described his small book on the Book of Solomon, “Union & Communion.” When our hopes are dependent on things in this fading world, our joy rapidly disappears. We need God’s eternal love, and that is what God offers in Jesus (Psalm 71:3).
(5) Pause to enjoy glad moments
Lastly, we need to squirrel away moments of quiet reflection and meditation on God’s Word in our busy lives. These increasingly precious times enable us to regain a sense of who we are and God’s purpose for our lives. We might be a slave or from a lower caste, but that’s not the worst thing in the world, though it is oppressive. The worst thing is not knowing God and realizing that we are his forever. Our relationship with God ushers in a sense of freedom, no matter our circumstances. God is greater than whatever we might experience on earth. Jesus showed us all this. Paul was wrongly imprisoned when he instructed us to always rejoice in the Lord. Our greatest joys will not be found on earth, but by learning to relish God’s special gifts—a breath of fresh air, a glimpse of a gliding butterfly, the kind smile of a guard, the offer of help from a stranger… , we can daily nurture our appreciation for God through His good gifts.
Let me close by likening our life situations to a mountain hike. We can get so exhausted from walking up those mountains and being bitten by a few select mosquitoes that we forget the joy of the trip itself.
Joy? Well, it can come from enjoying the people we might meet during the hike, the fresh pine-scents that flow across the valley, or the many gorgeous mountain views. As we deliberately focus on the delights, it opens our lives to God’s gifts. However, if we focus on the difficulties, then we will probably decide to never again go on such a hike. But I challenge you to experience a higher perspective of life as Solomon teaches us in Ecclesiastes.
Our life on earth might not be easy, but it does give occasion to instill moments of delight from our God. It includes the nurturing of our relationship with our Lord but also includes enjoying special moments through each day, however small they might be. Use these daily delights to steer you ultimately to God who kindly provided them. If you are a prisoner, seek a small window to gaze at the blue heights above.
By focusing on our pleasures, we can mishandle our attempts to find gladness and fall into three traps.
- The belief that life consists in pursuing our pleasures. This is wrong, and Solomon testifies to this! Pleasures are fine, but we must pursue God’s will so that we can take encouragement and delight in the rewards along the way.
- The belief that our experiences on earth sum up our lives. In some ways, they must. My spouse will die; even my children will have accidents (my daughter just hit a deer with her sister’s van). We must keep at least one eye looking at the distant future where all our tears are wiped away (Rev 21:4 “and He will wipe away every tear.…”)
- The belief that my joys derive from these small delights along the way. There will be times that we seek small joys with our children, spouses, friends, but then be hampered. It’s okay. Our greatest joys come from our confidence that God even uses these frustrations to deepen our trust in Him who is good. Be patient and loving. Our lives do not depend on these momentary rewards. Our highest delight comes from considering God’s amazing love for us.
We are not to get so caught up in our trials that we somehow end up despising God. Nor do we heavily engage in our obligations, thinking that they will fulfill us. Instead, we step back and regularly remember and delight in the daily moments of gladness. Don’t get so caught up caring for your child’s needs that you forget to pause and enjoy your relationship with him or her. Pass God’s love on through a special word or embrace, or even a whispered prayer. Let the same be true with your spouse. We don’t want to get life over but step back and remember God’s moments of relationship, unity, trust, hope, and delight. All these things provide better glimpses of how God draws us closer in intimacy with Him.
To the degree that we collect these many moments and treasure them as gifts from our Creator, they foster a greater expectation in our lives with the Lord ahead in eternity. Our lives on earth prepare us for eternity. Life becomes a test proving what means the most to us. He helps us gain insight into His wonderful Person by seeing how He inserts His good ways into our lives—His mercies are everlasting.
Don’t be so busy traveling through this life that we don’t gather joy from the momentary delights along the way. God is good! Enjoy the trip!
- Restate Ecclesiastes 5:18-20 in your own words.
- State the implications of these verses.
- Summarize the author’s main point about “gladness of heart.”
- Identify the two main points (out of the five) that mean most to you. Explain why.
- What is Solomon’s main point of writing Ecclesiastes?
- What are the three traps? Which one are you most susceptible to?
- Do you notice the special small things of life?
- What do you do with these special moments? Do you allow aggravations or distractions minimize these gifts of God?