At the beginning of 2005 I was finishing up preparation to teach about the Reformation at our youth ministry’s winter retreat. I had recently listened to a message by John Piper from the “Sex and the Supremacy of Christ” conference where he preached a rousing message on the preeminence of Christ. In his message he quoted a man I had never heard of before named Abraham Kuyper. The quote was:
“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”
It’s a fantastic quote, and I’ve heard it used or read it a number of times since then. I even used it in my message on Solus Christus at that retreat. Jesus reigns! As much as I believed it to be true, I didn’t realize how wide the truth of it applies.
The previous fall I had started teaching through Ecclesiastes with the students. I wanted to preach something other than an epistle, and I also thought that Ecclesiastes was perhaps the book most like an epistle in the Old Testament. Solomon wrote about life under the sun and, in particular, life’s heavy vanity. But as we studied through the book I noticed that every so often he described a buoy in the middle of the sea of vanity that a person could grab onto and pull their head out and get a breath.
I’m not sure that Solomon would have found much joy in this painting. You can make your own judgment.What surprised me, though, as someone steeped in the epistles, is that joy for Solomon was not found somewhere other than on earth nor outside of normal, temporal activities. I don’t think it’s because in all his wisdom Solomon didn’t know about or believe in heaven, but rather because he believed that for those who fear God there is good to be had here, good in white garments and life with one’s wife and working with all your might (see Ecclesiastes 9:7-10). Here’s the money passage in the entire book as far as I’m concerned:
There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy (Ecclesiastes 2:24–26a)
This joy returns a few times in the preacher’s wisdom. It isn’t found by getting away from people or duties or even off the planet. Joy is a gift from God for those rightly related to Him, a gift that He gives for those in the process of life on earth, not just those waiting for eternity.
Repentance dominated those days, that is, I was seeing my need to repent all over the place. Repentance was needed for complaining about repetitive, routine tasks. Repentance was needed both for seeking improper satisfaction from earthly things and also seeking improper liberation from earthly things. Repentance was required for avoiding God’s gifts, not just abusing them. According to the Scriptures, eating and drinking and toiling are places to find joy, not hindrances to joy.
To me, joy had been found in reading the Bible, in prayer, in studying theology, in writing sermons, in equipping others to disciple, in retreating for spiritual purposes. That was my work as a pastor, but I defined my work so narrowly that filling out paperwork, running errands, maintaining the car, or talking about budget spreadsheets seemed like lesser things. Was joy to be found even in that work?
If Solomon was right, how couldn’t it be? I knew that in studying the Bible one must always ask who the original audience was. Who were the people who first heard Solomon? They weren’t all philosophers or politicians, let alone theologians or pastors. They would have included farmers, soldiers, carpenters, musicians, cooks, and homemakers, the salt of the earth sort. Solomon couldn’t really be saying that God gives enjoyment in that kind of work, in itself, could he? Isn’t that kind of work the work to do to get to the work that matters? Yet my conclusion wasn’t in the text. The wisest man in the Bible had nothing for me about finding joy in longer hours of devotions and less in diaper changing. And he wasn’t the only one.