Ecclesiastes is one of the 24 books of the Hebrew Bible and one of the “wisdom books” of the Christian Old Testament. It was written sometime between 450-180 BC and is a summation of the wisdom accrued over a lifetime by a Jewish king, often attributed to King Solomon.
Regardless of your religious beliefs, there’s immense value in reading the philosophical ramblings of people that lived thousands of years before us.
Whether it’s the Stoic philosophies of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus, or the God-fearing texts of Jewish leaders of the ancient world, their words oftentimes are just as applicable and appreciable today as they were when they were written.
Ecclesiastes is a short book that reads as if the author is mentally wrestling with all that he’s observed in numerous decades of leading his people, and through that wrestling he continually lands on the same fundamental truth of a life well-lived:
A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. (Ecclesiastes 2:24)
He goes on further to say that these three things – food, drink, and enjoyment of our work – are gifts from God.
As with any philosophy, its value is only in the application it has to real life for real people, and when viewing this wisdom through my own life I can’t help but see the truth in it.
The author is essentially boiling life down to gratitude for its simplest necessities. After all, food and drink truly are gifts – gifts that keep us alive and gifts that we oftentimes take for granted.
But if everything were stripped away from us, food and drink would be the sustenance that becomes glaringly obvious as soon as we don’t have it. When we get microscopic with our gratitude, observing and appreciating the basics of life, we inherently will appreciate our lives more as a whole.
In the third observation – the enjoyment of our work – I don’t think the author is saying that we should all be doing work we love all of the time. Instead, I think he’s saying we should seek what we can enjoy about our work and appreciate the nature of work itself.
Anyone who’s ever struggled to pay their bills or hopelessly sought work to no avail can attest to this. Work becomes something we take for granted when we think we’re above it. Work becomes enjoyable when we see it for what it is – our chief end to contributing and an inclination we’re wired with.
These things become even more clear in light of one of the other truths that the King continually lands on:
All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:17)
The author isn’t saying that life itself is meaningless, but the things we regularly commit ourselves to are – accumulation, status, wealth, worth.
99.99999% of us will be forgotten not long after we’re gone. While an unpleasant thought, it’s hard to argue its validity. Yet we spend so many of our days putting our stress, fears, and energy into things that ultimately don’t matter.
When we realize the meaningless nature of most of our ambitions, we’re given a little window to peer into which shows us that sustenance and work to apply our hands to are the most noble of things that deserve our gratitude.
You cannot hold gratitude in one hand while holding anger or discontent in the other. This was just as true 2,500 years ago as it is today.
Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 4:6)