Tom Bombadil is one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s most enigmatic characters. Unfortunately, he does not appear in Peter Jackson’s film version of The Lord of the Rings. Here is a man not possessed by his possessions, as the person presented in Ecclesiastes 5:10-17 seems to be.
In the epic unfolding storyline, Tom Bombadil is a mysterious figure who is quick to laughter and who seems to live in a blessed state of joy.
Early in the journey, Frodo and company wander into his lands, into a respite of joy in stark contrast to the darkness they would soon face.
“Who is Tom Bombadil?” a curious Frodo later asks Tom’s wife, Goldberry.
“He is the Master of wood, water, and hill.”
“Then all this strange land belongs to him?”
No, indeed! The woods, the water, and the hills that fill Tom Bombadil with delight are not his to possess — they are his to tend and to enjoy. Which echoes Adam’s commission from God in Genesis 2.
To be sure, Tom is not an allegory against owning property, nor is he an allegory for passivism. As Tolkien also makes clear, it will take warfare against Sauron to stop the encroaching evil in order to preserve the lifestyle that Tom and Goldberry enjoy.
As if we need the confirmation, Tolkien makes it clear in his letters that Tom is an intentional enigma. Tom incarnates a contrast. He represents a soul that has been freed from the greed of possession in order to delight in created beauty. He has renounced control and therefore finds the means of power to be valueless, too. As a result, Tom Bombadil can hold Frodo’s great ring of power with no danger to himself or anyone else. The ring wields no power over Tom because Tom has no interest in possessing the power of the ring.
When the lust for possession is broken, when gratitude takes its place, and when one can simply delight in the glories of creation, then some of evil’s darkest schemes in the human heart are broken.
Today in our study of Ecclesiastes, we come to a conclusion which Solomon has drawn before. Although this life has many sorrows and vanities, although it is confusing and complex, although it doesn’t often turn out the way we have planned, there is still something we can delight in and enjoy.
Listen to Solomon’s words here in Ecclesiastes 5:18-20
18 Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil–this is the gift of God. 20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.
Solomon says something similar in Ecclesiastes 2:24-25; 3:12-13; 8:15 and 9:7-10. This idea of eating and drinking and enjoying life is far different from the irresponsible and nihilistic, “”Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Isaiah 22:13; 1 Corinthians 15:32). Solomon is not giving in to defeat and saying, “Just make the most of life while you can.” I think he is presenting to us a positive alternative to life consumed by making money, consumed by having it all—and that is, to enjoy the simple pleasures of life that God gives us.
According to a Russian legend a peasant was to receive by a deed all the land he could encompass by running in one day. When the day came, he ran and ran, got back to the starting point at the end of the day, and was tired. The sun was almost down, but not quite. So he took off in another direction to acquire some more land. He got back just as the sun dropped below the horizon—and he dropped dead.
What a picture of the futility of modern living! People gain something, but they can’t enjoy it. They work for wealth, but then lose it. They acquire education, but they are still miserable. What then is the point of living?
The contented man, the satisfied man, is the one who can accept and enjoy the lot that God has given him. Being the good God that He is, that lot will include giving us “wealth and possessions” and giving us the “power to enjoy them.”
Solomon begins by grabbing our attention with the word “behold.” He is saying, “sit up and pay attention, here is something you don’t want to miss.”
Instead of experiencing the frustrations, disappointments and emptiness of toiling for money and wealth (which Solomon had just talked about in vv. 10-17), you can work your work, even enjoy it, expecting that God will give you both your income and joy in it.
Solomon has seen grievous things (vv. 13-17) and he has also seen something that is “good and fitting.” The word for fitting is “yapheh,” which means “beautiful” or “fair”. Obviously, there is a better way to live than what most people are living.
I think Solomon here is giving us a glimpse of what life “above the sun,” from a heavenly perspective looks like. Although ultimate happiness and joy will not be found here on earth, true glimpses of joy can happen while engaging in the simple things of life. Solomon sees that it is “good and fitting” to engage in the simple pleasures of life like eating and drinking, finding enjoyment in the life God gives us.
Paul told Timothy not to put one’s “hope in wealth, which is so uncertain,” but to put our “hope in God, who [notice] richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17, NIV).
God wants us to enjoy life! While God Himself is our ultimate joy, out of His goodness He provides simple pleasures for us to enjoy from day to day.
Ecclesiastes encourages us to enjoy the pleasures of life with thankfulness to God, from whose hand they come. Enjoy the pleasures, but don’t expect more from them than they can offer. Never forget that pleasures proceed from a loving heavenly Father who wants you to find ultimate fulfillment and eternal meaning in him, not in the gifts he gives.
Solomon believes that God is a God of joy, who wants to share that joy.
Earlier in this passage, when he was talking about the vanity of money, the Preacher hardly mentioned God at all. But in verses 18–20 he mentions him repeatedly. Whatever enjoyment he finds is God-centered. Without God, life is meaningless and miserable, especially if we are living for money. But when we know the God of joy, then even work and possessions can be a blessing.
To understand this, we need to pay attention to the phrasing of verse 19. Earlier the Preacher listed some of the many reasons why accumulating money is vanity (vv. 10-17). Yet here he tells us explicitly that if we are wealthy, we should enjoy it. That almost sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it?
But notice where the power of enjoyment comes from: it comes from God, not having things. Both having things and enjoying things are gifts from God.
This profound insight helps us have a balanced view of our earthly possessions. The world that God created is full of many rich gifts, but the power to enjoy them does not lie in the gifts themselves.
This is why it is always useless to worship the gifts instead of the Giver. The ability to enjoy wealth or family or friendship or food or work or sex or any other good gift comes only from God. Satisfaction is sold separately. It comes from God. Thus, we must have a relationship with him to enjoy His gifts to the full.
So the God-centered verses at the end of Ecclesiastes 5 call us back to a joy that we can only find in God. The person who finds the greatest enjoyment in life is the one who knows God and has a relationship with him through Jesus Christ.
How do you see life?
Solomon presents life here as an “allotment.” Twice, he uses this word in vv. 18 and 19.
The “lot” that God has given us, is enjoyed by trusting God with it. We don’t have to work for it. He gives it–because He is good and gracious.
David expresses his contentment similar phraseology when he says in Psalm 16:5-6
5 The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. 6 The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
David recognizes that life had been allotted and plotted for him. And it gave him security and delight. Even though there were boundaries to his inheritance, he thought it was beautiful. Of course, this satisfaction with life as God has determined it, is felt because we first make the Lord our chosen portion, we value Him above all things in this life.
Second, Solomon pictures life as a “gift.” “This is the gift of God” at the end of verse 19, referring to the allotted life of both work and the enjoyment of God’s gifts, is very similar to Ephesians 2:8
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this [salvation by grace through faith] is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,
Verse 9 goes on to tell us why this is important…
9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
It is important for us to remember that not only our salvation, but our whole lives, is a gift from God.
Moses warned Israel that when they got into the land and cultivated it, they might begin to believe that it was through their own efforts, rather than through God’s grace, that they were able to enjoy life. In Deuteronomy 8:11-18 Moses warned:
11 “Take care lest you forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, 12 lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15 who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, 16 who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. 17 Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ 18 You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day.
David Guzik notes:
In times of abundance, it is easy to forget the Lord, or at least to no longer seek Him with the urgency we once had. We often think too highly of our own hard work and brilliance. Yet we must see that God gives us the body, the brain, and the talent. It is all of God.
Not only does remembering that everything is a gift from God prevent boasting, but it prevents worry and anxiety as well.
This worry and anxiety, the heaviness of life, seems to be the point of verse 20:
20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.
God gives us wealth and the ability to enjoy it so that we will not boast that we did it and so that we will not be anxious about tomorrow.
Jesus expresses this relationship between anxiety and money in the Sermon on the Mount. He tells us not to worry because we have a Father who is determined to take care of us.
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.
So we are to remind ourselves that all of life is a gift from God. That keeps us from boasting and from anxiety. We should ask God for our “daily bread,” be satisfied with that and joy will occupy our hearts.
God should be the primary joy and satisfaction of our hearts. If he is not, we will fall into idolatry. But even so, I believe he does want us to enjoy the gifts He gives to us, the life He has allotted to us.
That is the subject of both Michael Wittmer’s Becoming Worldly Saints and Joe Rigney’s The Things of Earth. Both books provide a needed addition to the idea that God is to be our greatest joy.
Yes, we need to be alert to avoiding idolatry, but we also need to learn to enjoy the gifts that God has given us in life.
Michael Wittmer acknowledges this need for balance when he says…
There are two ways to ruin our relationship with the Giver of all things. The first is to ignore him and focus entirely on his gifts. This temptation to idolatry is ever present, and we must remain vigilant against it. The second way is to ignore the gift and focus entirely on the Giver.
What would we make of an insufferably pious child who opened every Christmas present only to toss it aside and say, “Thanks, Mom and Dad, but all I really want is you!” Wouldn’t the parents throw up their hands and say, “I’m glad you love us best, but you know what, you’re impossible to shop for!”
If the first temptation ignores the God who gives, the second refuses to let him be the God who gives. (Becoming Worldly Saints, pp. 65-66).
He goes on to say that the latter sin may be an even more subtle form of idolatry, because we are acting as if we know better than God.
Theologian Doug Wilson explains, “If I turn every gift that God gives over in my hands suspiciously, looking for the idol trap, then I am not rejoicing before Him the way I ought to be.”
God has given us so many good gifts in life to enjoy. Acknowledging and enjoying these gifts now just prepares us for the eternal joys that await us in heaven.
Joe Rigney says…
We can’t imagine what God has in store for us. Our minds are not big enough yet. Our hearts are not large enough yet. Eye has not seen, ear has not heard. And the only way to prepare for the coming glories is to press into what God has given us now. If we’re to eventually be entrusted with the laughter of heaven, we must faithfully enjoy the music of God that we hear now (The Things of Earth, p. 156).
I want to encourage you to open your eyes and ears, and heart and mind, to the wonders of God’s gifts to you—through nature, through culture, through your family, through the simple joys of life. Embrace them, thank God for them, and then share them with others.
Derek Kidner says, “…as the chapter ends we catch a glimpse of the man for whom life passes swiftly, not because it is short and meaningless, but because, by the grace of God, he finds it utterly absorbing.”