On the pleasures of youth…whatever those are.

Young people, it’s wonderful to be young! Enjoy every minute of it. Do everything you want to do; take it all in. But remember that you must give an account to God for everything you do. So refuse to worry, and keep your body healthy. But remember that youth, with a whole life before you, is meaningless. (Ecclesiastes 11:9-10, NLT)

This passage surprisingly caught my full attention this morning during my quiet time. After reading it several times and having no idea what it meant, I looked it up in several of my favorite translations (LEB, NET, NIV, NLT) and realized that this is one of those different-in-just-about-every-translation passages. It’s a controversial passage and has been for millenia, so this is is going to be a controversial post.

How do you make sense of a passage like this? What is youth, what are “the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes?” Is the author serious? Follow your desires as a youth? YOLO? What about the part about judgement?

Scholars have come to a few different conclusions: this passage either teaches us that we should frolic about in our youth and seek to explore our pleasures; or that we shouldn’t. Thanks scholars, that was really helpful. How can reasonable and faithful people come to such opposing interpretations and how can the meaning be so elusive?

These monkeys inculcate a fear of wrongdoing to guard their appearance of rightness.
These monkeys inculcate a fear of wrongdoing to guard their appearance of rightness.

Precautionary Measures

It’s worth noting that passages like this scare people. We base our interpretations not only on what we read in a passage, but also on how we think people will respond to them – “think of the children!”. The Pulpit Commentary makes note, stating…

Others besides the Seventy have felt doubts about the bearing of the passage, as though it recommended either unbridled license in youth, or at any rate an unhallowed Epicureanism.

In other words, “I don’t think that this passage should mean this, so I’m going to obscure that meaning from my audience.” Matthew Henry demonstrates this in his commentary.

…that Solomon means to condemn the pleasures of sin is evident.

The passage literally tells the reader to pursue those pleasures, so why is the contrary evident? At best, this is intentionally removing ambiguity that existed in the original text to guard against misinterpretation; at worst it’s redefining the Scripture based on our own values and agendas. Personally, I prefer to preserve ambiguity, assuming that the original author could have been clearer but chose not to.

Beethoven's Apassionata
Beethoven’s Apassionata

What then does this passage imply?

The self-revealing side of me interprets this passage as a commendation to seek out joy and pleasure in our youth, not because I lean towards hedonism, but because I lean towards asceticism – “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch!” The author has been building up a sense of the limitation of our understanding of the future, stating that since we do not know what tomorrow will bring, we should “rejoice and enjoy [ourselves] during [our] lives,” and “eat, drink, and be merry.

Even in Luke when Jesus confronted this passage, he didn’t condemn the rich man for enjoying himself, but for making an assumption on what would come to pass and being lazy as a result of it. In Ecclesiastes, we are told to enjoy ourselves because we are ignorant of the future.

Our passions and desires define who we are and separate us from animals, plants, and other creations, even from each other. We benefit from remembering that God didn’t give us attributes or abilities that we weren’t intended to use at the appropriate times.

Should a Christian drink alcohol? Should a Christian teen kiss his girlfriend or her boyfriend? Should a Christian go skydiving or hike across Europe? Should a Christian waste money by going to the theater or eating at an expensive restaurant? Should a Christian follow the fads of fashion and dress in style? Should a Christian push the limits for a fix on adrenaline?

Yeah. Why not? Especially in our youth, yes.

Remember that youth, with a whole life before you, is meaningless. (Ecclesiastes 11:10, NLT)

The author implies that we should explore our humanity in the prime of life when we are unencumbered by the many ailments of aging. The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges quips it aptly:

..life is after all worth living, that it is wise to cultivate the faculty of enjoyment in the season when that faculty is, in most cases, as by a law of nature, strong and capable of being fashioned into a habit.

Struwwelpeter's stories frighten German youth into submission and obedience.
Struwwelpeter’s stories frighten German youth into submission and obedience.

But think of the children~!

Yeah – we’re back to the fear of how this could be read, that implied “unbridled license.” We certainly don’t want to encourage promiscuity, licentiousness, addiction, rebellion, and every other horror in our youth. Let’s teach each other to be afraid of the unknown, to fear that which could be mistaken. But then there’s the beauty of Christian liberty which drives out fear:  this warning in the text…

…remember that you must give an account to God for everything that you do (Ecclesiastes 11:9)

The Pulpit commentary continues by recognizing that “unlawful pleasures, contrary to the commandments, are forbidden; Ecclesiastes urges the pursuit of innocent pleasures, such as will stand scrutiny.” With plenty of ambiguity, we can see that we should pursue pleasure, but in a way in which we can glorify God. These things are subjective and uncodifiable, probably different for each person.

We know from the Scriptures that to him for whom it is a sin, that person ought not to engage in it, and that we should be warned against legalism, shackling every good thing and denying the grace of Christ’s sacrifice. So we are free to do all things without worry as long as we stay within a very clear and defined boundary.

We as youth should learn to recognize the good pleasures from the bad and determine to not worry about those things where we doubt. We should be teaching our youth these things. Like Martin Luther’s famous quote, “Be a sinner, and sin boldly, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world,” we ought to pursue what it is that makes us human and do so without reserve because we know that in our errors Christ will cover the gap.

There is pleasure in sin, but these things that are clearly sin we know not to do: do not greedily cheat one another; do not prostitute oneself or others; do not push others out of the way to elevate oneself. There is no covering for these because we learn through the scriptures and through our conscience that there is no wiggle room in how we view them. For everything else? Enter the gray.

A majestic oak tree.
The tree brings glory to God by being a tree.

Conclusion

From my upbringing I learned that it is much safer to abstain from something if there were any doubt about its fruitfulness or or sinfulness. Let’s make rules to keep us from risking doing something that could potentially be sinful. This passage in Ecclesiastes is one among many that have persuaded me to reconsider my earlier understanding. Thomas Merton wrote one of my favorite quotes:

A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him. It “consents,” so to speak, to His creative love…Therefore each particular being, in its individuality, its concrete nature and entity, with all its own characteristics and its private qualities and its own inviolable identity, gives glory to God by being precisely what He wants it to be here and now, in the circumstances ordained for it by His Love and His infinite Art.”

When we “follow the ways of [our] heart and the sight of [our] eyes” we run the journey of self-discovery. We figure out who we are and how to love life and we make lots of mistakes. We explore what it means to be “me” and shape our future through these experiences. We are going to mess up and sin, but with a pure heart (as David alludes to despite his own sin), Christ’s grace will cover for those failures. So yes, Solomon was indeed condoning the pursuit of pleasure and we should do that too: we were made to live and not to doubt.

Lessons Learned

  1. Champion Christian liberty, because the enjoyment of life brings glory to God.
  2. Explore every aspect of humanity, because it is who we are.
  3. Give grace to one another when we disagree, because God has passed down a legacy of ambiguity through the scriptures which protects our individuality and summons the use of all our faculties in the pursuit of Godliness.
  4. Remember that in the end comes judgment: plenty of things aren’t ambiguous and most people easily agree on these things. Spiritualizing license does not bring us closer to God; pursuing the enjoyment of life does. Christ covers the gaps in which we fall, but the pure heart at least makes the attempt.

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