Does Ecclesiastes contradict what Paul says about the attitude “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die?”

Q.  As Paul writes to the Corinthians, he seems to associate a disbelief in the resurrection with a hedonistic attitude towards this life.  He says, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'” But the book of Ecclesiastes appears to take the very attitude that Paul criticizes.  It seems to deny the afterlife:  “Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”  And it seems to praise carefree eating and drinking in that light: “There is nothing better for people than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their toil.”  Should we understand the statements in Ecclesiastes as not fully informed, and as corrected in the New Testament?  If so, how can they be inspired Scripture?

I have no problem with the idea that the later biblical writers are in conversation with the earlier ones, and that from their vantage point farther along in redemptive history, the later writers are able to shed light on things that were not so clear earlier, even to inspired biblical authors.

But I don’t think that “the Teacher” in Ecclesiastes is actually speaking of eating and drinking in quite the same way as the cynics Paul is answering in 1 Corinthians.  (Paul is actually quoting a statement preserved in the book of Isaiah that was originally made by the calloused citizens of Jerusalem, who responded to their city’s impending destruction with reckless feasting and drinking rather than with repentance).

The eating and drinking that the Teacher is talking about isn’t a hedonistic assertion that all we have is one short life and so we have to grab all the pleasure we can while it’s available.  Instead, it’s one way he illustrates the principle of not forfeiting the present for the sake of what we expect to happen in the future–but can never be sure of.

This is the bottom line for him:  how do you know what will happen in the future?  How do you even know if “the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”  I don’t see this as a denial of the resurrection or the afterlife, but rather as an insistence that we can’t be absolutely certain of the future, so we should appreciate the present, which we do have, right down to our food and drink.  This explains his similar insistence on enjoying your work while you’re doing it, rather than doing work you don’t enjoy for the sake of uncertain future rewards.

As I say in my study guide to Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and James:

* * * * *

The Teacher recognized that nothing he’d worked for would last forever, or even for a long time into the future:  “When I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless” (Hebrew hebel: fleeting, transient, temporary).  He also observed that even though he had lived well–responsibly and creatively–his life would end, from an earthly perspective, just like the lives of those who had been foolish and wasted their abilities.  Everyone, no matter how they’ve lived, eventually grows old, declines in health, and dies.  And the Teacher also realized, to his horror, that after his death everything he’d worked for would be put in the hands of someone who might be wise, but who might also be foolish and squander his accumulated wealth and tarnish his legacy.

And so the Teacher concluded that it makes no sense to work hard all the time, and not enjoy life in the present, for the sake of what you believe will happen in the future on the earth.  No matter how great your achievements and reputation, you’re going to die in the end; and no matter how long your accomplishments last after you’re gone (and there’s no guarantee they won’t be destroyed in the next generation), ultimately they’ll disappear and you’ll be forgotten.  And so, he says, a person should live instead for what’s happening in the present: they should find work that they will enjoy while they’re doing it.  (This is “incidental pleasure,” not pleasure pursued as an end in itself as the source of meaning in life.)

* * * * *

I agree that Paul’s assertion of the resurrection and its present implications for our life and work are a more definitive word on this issue, but I also think we should face the Teacher’s challenges squarely.  The person who’s working 80-100 hours a week in a job they don’t like because they believe this will set them up for the future may look back over this part of their life with great regret.  As I also say in the study guide, “In a paradoxical way, having this authentic experience of the present is somehow the surest way to know that our lives are also counting for eternity.”

In that light, I think we can all enjoy our Thanksgiving dinners this year.  As an “incidental pleasure.”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

2 thoughts on “Does Ecclesiastes contradict what Paul says about the attitude “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die?””

  1. So refreshing to finally read someone who understands Kohelet. Love the idea of getting past the chapters and verses as well (in your bio). I spent the last 10 years working on a translation of Kohelet and finally dropped the verses and went with 31 meditations. Now I have memorized his writings so I can perform it while cooking an eastern meal. Fascinating to see the reactions.

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