Last week I was captivated by a sunrise. I am one of those people who is “early to bed, early to rise” and have watched many sunrises. I love the dawning of a new day because every day is so full of promise and possibility. Every sunrise lays a new day before us and asks, “What will you do with this day? What will this day be?”
The sunrise that so gripped me is described in the book of Ecclesiastes where the author, a man who identifies himself only as The Preacher, writes “Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.” This man is a poet and he looks at that sunrise and sees it as a picture of youth. The brightness of the sun as it cuts through the darkness and ushers in a new day is like the radiance of youth with all its excitement and energy and possibilities. Youth lays a whole lifetime before us and asks, “What will you do with this life? Who will you be?”
The Preacher’s great concern is that youth does not go to waste. He wants us and commands us to enjoy the days of youth—not just the days of childhood, but all of the days before old age comes. “So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all … Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 11:7-9). He speaks to each of us and tells us to take advantage of this time to do what makes us happy, what brings us joy, what we are passionate about. These are the days when we are young and strong, energetic and optimistic. These are the days when the possibilities are limitless, when the whole world lies open before us. He wants us to do what we love and to love what we do, and he wants us to do it now, in the days of youth. He knows that a day will come when joy will be far more difficult to find. If we are going to be joyful in old age, we will need to be joyful now and carry joy with us into those days.
This Preacher has been speaking on behalf of God and teaches us that the Lord wants us to enjoy life and to acknowledge all the good things life brings. Isn’t that amazing? God wants us to enjoy life! God wants us to linger over a good cup of coffee and walk hand-in-hand with the person we love and savor that delicious meal and enjoy making love and appreciate the beauty in a rainbow. These are his gifts and he wants us to enjoy them. Life is a gift and he wants us to enjoy it.
The Preacher is so concerned with our joy that he gives us three joy-enhancers—three things that will help us get every bit of joy we can from these years. These are things each of us would do well to keep in mind.
#1. Acknowledge Youth Will End
The Preacher says, “If a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many.” He wants us to savor life as we live it. If we are granted many years, we are free before the Lord to live them all without sadness and without regret. But even as we take joy in life, even as we live with youthful exuberance, our Preacher calls us to have an awareness that the light of day will eventually give way to the dark of night. The sun that rises will need to set again and darkness will come. The joy of youth will be followed by all the difficulties of old age and the difficulties of old age will be followed by death. It is right and good to really live, to live all the way, but we live best when we keep one eye on eternity, when we keep in mind that these good days will come to an end.
Acknowledging the end helps us. It reinforces that we only get one chance, one opportunity. This life cannot be lived well in retrospect. It can only be lived well in the moment. None of us will get a second chance to do life well; none of us will get a second chance to live today well. So don’t waste your day, don’t waste your youth, and don’t waste your life!
#2. Acknowledge a Coming Judgment
The Preacher gives a second way to enhance our joy in life. He says to enjoy life but to do so by acknowledging a coming judgment. We might think that it’s far too risky for our Preacher to call a young man to live “according to the ways of his heart and the light of his eyes” (verse 9). This could easily be seen as a call to hedonism, to live only for the pleasure of this life. A parched man wrings a wet cloth to get every last drop of water out of it, and we could see the Preacher calling us to wring every bit of selfish pleasure we can out of life and then to go to the grave smiling. But it’s not this simple. The Preacher offers this warning: “Know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.”
Our joy in life is to be an innocent, pure, moral joy. When we look elsewhere in Ecclesiastes and elsewhere in the Bible, we find that God gives us boundaries and tells us to live within them. God cares for our joy so much that he tells us what to avoid and what to pursue in order to find the highest joy. These days of youth and all of their pleasures are lived out before God who will weigh and assess each one of them. Our challenge in all of life is to believe what God tells us and to live within the good boundaries he provides, trusting that this is where we will find the greatest and most lasting joy.
#3. Acknowledge the Vanity of Life
The third of the joy-enhancers is this: Enjoy life but acknowledge the vanity of it. After he calls us to enjoy life the Preacher reminds us that “All is vanity” and “youth and the dawn of life are vanity.” The ESV translates this word from the Hebrew as “vanity” but it has been translated many other ways. Some translations say “meaningless.” Others go with “futility” or “pointlessness.” The meaning is in there somewhere and they are all pointing to the same reality. Literally the word means “vapor.”
All that comes between life and death is vapor. It isn’t quite meaningless and it isn’t quite futile, but it is vapor, something that is here and then gone, like dust blown away by the wind, like steam that rises from the kettle and disappears into the air.
What we do in this life matters. What we do in this life has real significance, but nothing here will ultimately satisfy because nothing here will last forever. Earlier in Ecclesiastes the Preacher says that God has put eternity in our hearts. How could anything less than what is eternal give us ultimate satisfaction? We were made for this, but we were made for so much more than this.
This is a warning for us that we are surrounded by false, fraudulent joys, things that try to convince us that they will satisfy, but they will only leave us empty. Really, this is a warning that we will always be tempted to be idolaters, to make the gift into the god. We find the greatest joy when we accept the gifts for what they are and acknowledge that they, like everything else in this world, will end. The sun that rises will set again.
That sunrise challenged me anew with both the brevity of life and its signifiance. That sunrise challenged me to grasp the fullest joy and signifiance from each day, to acknowledge that God tells me where the highest joys will be found, and to know that misery often masquerades us joy. This life is vapor, but this life matters. It matters to God that I pursue joy—the truest and highest joys—and that I pursue it for his glory.