Pleasure and the Pursuit of God

“Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things, God will bring you into judgment.” 

Ecclesiastes 11:9[1]

In the song “Wait for It,” which is part of the musical “Hamilton,” Aaron Burr mentioned his grandfather was a “fire and brimstone preacher.” Aaron Burr’s grandfather was, at one time, much more famous than Aaron Burr or Alexander Hamilton. He was something like the Joel Osteen of his day. Who was this famous “fire and brimstone preacher?” Aaron Burr’s illustrious grandfather was the first president of Princeton University—Jonathan Edwards. 

What made Jonathan Edwards so famous? He is best known today for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.” That sermon wasn’t even close to his most famous. It was a total flop the first time it was delivered. Jonathan Edwards wasn’t what we would call a “fire and brimstone preacher.” He did not have a dynamic delivery. He would routinely preach from a manuscript which he held in front of his face. Edwards’ fame was directly tied to his knowledge of Scripture. Their understanding of Scripture was developed through hours of study. 

Just how many hours per day do you think Jonathan Edwards devoted to the study of Scripture? Alexander Campbell famously studied the Scriptures for one hour, Greek for one hour, Latin for one hour, and Hebrew for one hour every day. He would also memorize ten verses of Scripture every day, which took 2 hours. He was known to return home at 10 pm after having left at 4 am. But what about Edwards? Jonathan Edwards was known to be the man who studied thirteen hours per day. Edwards would begin his study at 4 am and finish his investigation, presumably, around 5 pm.  

What would make anyone study like those men? No one required it of them, but they chose to devote their lives to the study of Scripture for most of every day. Like Ezra, they had the heart to do this study. Ezra 7:10 says, “Now Ezra had determined in his heart to study the law of the Lord, obey it, and teach its statutes and ordinances in Israel.”[2] The only thing I can see that would lead to such dedication is a heart that enjoyed such a study. They found joy in studying and teaching God’s Word.

Even though Edwards is famous for his sermon on God’s wrath, he preached on Heaven, love, and the heart more than Hell. In a “Treatise on Religion,” he wrote

That religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless wishes, raising us but a little above a state of indifference. God, in his word, greatly insists upon it, that we be in good earnest, fervent in spirit, and our hearts vigorously engaged in religion: Rom. 12:11. “Be ye fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.” Deut. 10:12. “And now Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee, but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul?” And chap. 6:4, 5. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” It is such a fervent, vigorous engagedness of the heart in religion, that is the fruit of a real circumcision of the heart or true regeneration, and that has the promises of life: Deut. 30:6. “And the Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart, and the heart of thy seed, to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, that thou mayest live.” If we be not in good earnest in religion, and our wills and inclinations be not strongly exercised, we are nothing.[3]

Christ is the heart of Christianity and requires the hearts of Christians. The book of Ecclesiastes is often seen as depressing as it demonstrates the meaninglessness of life. But the book is best understood in light of God our pursuit of him. Without God and the pursuit of God, life is meaningless. With God and hearts given over to God, life is full of purpose and joy. 

Rejoice

            The first command in Ecclesiastes 11:9 is to “rejoice.” “Rejoice” שְׂמַ֧ח. In the Brown, Driver, and Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, this word is grouped into normal and religious instances. This twofold division of the word’s usage is helpful, but what if we combined the uses so that our “rejoicing” was spiritual and encompassed all our lives? Shouldn’t everything about our lives be pointed toward God and draw us closer to God? Now, sometimes people think religious people suppress fun and happiness. We all need to reread the Bible. The Bible is filled with joy. We are commanded to rejoice here and sixteen times in Philippians. God’s people are to be joyful. Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (Jn 15:11). This “rejoicing” comes from the heart. Ecclesiastes 11:9 says, “let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth.” The preacher here commanded the young man to rejoice as part of his duty toward God. “‘Cheerfulness, here, is not merely permitted; it is commanded, and represented as an essential element of piety’ (Hengstenberg).[4]

How is our heart to cheer us? God, in his Bible, has taught us about our hearts. Our hearts can be dangerous. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” We shouldn’t want or expect to find real joy in a heart such as this one. However, God also promised a new type of heart. In Ezekiel 36:26, God said, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” This new heart from God is full of life and joy since it is from God. This heart is also focused on God rather than the sins of the world. 

This “rejoicing” is primarily focused on “young men” or those with potential. It is during youth when our hearts are unregulated inexperience and more readily given to temptations. It is also during one’s youth that good habits and proper dispositions should be developed. Then, the young man is challenged to rejoice in the Lord as he pursues his walk of life. This joy is the attitude which should be present and demonstrated in every life, but perhaps, especially among the young who have not yet fought all of life’s battles. 

Walk

The next command to “walk” is directly related to the heart of joy in the previous command. We are “walk in the ways of your heart and in the sight of your eyes” (Ecc 11:9). Now, we might be tempted to look at this as simply being told to do whatever we want but to be careful because we are going to be judged, but there is more to this verse and all of Scripture. If our hearts are filled with God, and our eyes are focused on Christ, then we can be free to follow our hearts and fill our eyes with our heart’s desire. The same principle is seen in Psalm 37:4, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” This verse doesn’t teach us to love the Lord, and he will give us whatever we want. This verse teaches us that we should delight in the Lord and that he will provide us with himself—the desire of our heart. 

            The command to walk, then, is what we would naturally do when we are too happy to be still. Our heart is filled with joy and runs over into our lives as obedience and worship. All of Paul’s letters have this same outline: first, look at what God has done and then, second, see how we must live. Just as Francis Schaeffer’s famous series on the philosophy of Western civilization asked, “How Then Shall We Live?” We must all look at the reality of God and his work and decide “how should we live?” based on the existence of a glorious God and his incredible works. 

Know

            Now we know that we will be judged. We will stand before God. Ecclesiastes 11:9 says, “But know that for all these things, God will bring you into judgment.” If our hearts are filled with God and our lives are the overflow of that holy joy, then we can come boldly before God’s throne of judgement knowing that it is also the throne of grace. 

Revelation Judgment is inescapable, but a pardon is possible. Pardon is certain for those in Christ. Therefore, the book of Hebrews exhorts us to “come boldly before the throne of grace” (Heb 4:16). The Psalmist said, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you” (Ps 89:14).

Judgment is certain. In the next chapter, Ecclesiastes’ preacher concluded, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” John described the final judgment as the book of Revelation closed. He wrote:

Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done (Rev. 20:11-13).

As we stand in Judgment, the only confidence we may have is that the Judge is also our Savior. 

If our lives are dedicated to him, we need not fear. Our joy and our walk will have been centered on him. His service will have been our continual delight. The heart from God focused on God is the only hope for satisfaction and salvation. If our hearts are led astray to anything other than God, we will find ourselves refusing his grace and recipients of his wrath. 

Delight in the Lord

            Here is the secret to life, the text and perhaps the book of Ecclesiastes—a book written to us to know how to live and make a living direct us to the futility of life without God and the blessings which pursue the righteous. The secret to the book, and the secret of life, is to love the Lord and be satisfied in him. “To fear God and keep his commandments” as “the whole duty of man” but also as the one fulfilling purpose to life. Perhaps, the folks at Westminster were right when they said the chief end or purpose of humanity is to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.” 

            Ecclesiastes 11:9 seems to teach the opposite of what had been instructed in Numbers 15:37-41 where the Lord said to Moses and said, 

Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the Lord your God.”

Why are the two passages so different? In Numbers 15 God gave “tassels” and “a cord of blue in each corner” to remind the people of “all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after.” Now the wise son has been instructed to remember the Lord and will, with this wisdom, follow the Lord because the Lord is his delight. 

The Lord is our only real source of joy. The Psalmist wrote, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Ps 4:7). The prophecy of Isaiah 61:1-3 was fulfilled in Christ and is still fulfilled in Christ for us today. 

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, 

because the Lord has anointed me 

                         to bring good news to the poor; 

he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, 

                         to proclaim liberty to the captives, 

and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; 

                       to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, 

and the day of vengeance of our God; 

to comfort all who mourn; 

                       to grant to those who mourn in Zion— 

to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, 

                         the oil of gladness instead of mourning, 

the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; 

                         that they may be called oaks of righteousness, 

the planting of the Lord that he may be glorified.”

“Joy” is listed second, only behind love, in the fruit of Spirit in Galatians 5:2. The angel said the birth of Christ was “good news of great joy” (Lk 2:10). After hearing the Scriptures taught in Nehemiah’s day, “all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing because they had understood the words that were declared to them” (Neh 8:12). Christian, do not look everywhere in hopes of finding fleeting happiness somewhere. The world only offers waste. The inspired preacher was right when he said, “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecc 2:11).

       The heart which is set on Christ will be demonstrated with Christian actions. Jonathan Edwards wrote, “When a man is at liberty whether to speak or keep silence, the most proper evidence of his having an heart to speak, is his speaking. When a man is at liberty whether to walk or sit still, the proper proof of his having a heart to walk, is his walking. Godliness consists not in an heart to intend to do the will of God, but in an heart to do it.”[5] He went on to describe the necessity of this heart when he wrote, “Tis therefore exceeding absurd, and even ridiculous, for any to pretend that they have a good heart, while they live a wicked life, or don’t bring forth the fruit of universal holiness in their practice. For ’tis proved in fact, that such men don’t love God above all.”[6]

       Look only to God. He alone is the fulness of life and joy. Psalm 16:11 teaches us “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps 16:11). Are you looking to Jesus? Do you refuse the advances of secularism and temptations which call to you? Is Christ the true King of your heart?


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ec 11:9.

[2] Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2020), Ezr 7:10.

[3] Jonathan Edwards, “A Treatiese Concerning Religious Affections,”The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 237–238.

[4] Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 18, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983), 165.

[5] Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, ed. John E. Smith and Harry S. Stout, Revised edition., vol. 2, The Works of Jonathan Edwards (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 427.

[6] Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, 428.

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