“Rejoice, O young man in thy youth; and let thine heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment.”
These verses are remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, above all other sorts of people that the preacher could choose to address, such as husbands or wives, rulers or servants, he picks on young men as the objects of his sermon. Secondly, the tone employed by the preacher is ironic, sarcastic even, as he addresses them, using similar tactics to Paul in I Cor. 15:32 when he argues that if there is going to be no resurrection, we might as well spend all our time indulging our flesh, eating and drinking, “for tomorrow we die.” Here Solomon reasons correctly that if there is to be no general judgment of sin on the last day, we might as well spend our time here doing exactly as we please.
The reason why young men are particularly spoken to is not hard to guess. Solomon’s central theme in Ecclesiastes is that every kind of earthly activity and pleasure which is “under the sun,” or which excludes God and spiritual things, is meaningless and empty, “vanity and vexation.” Above all other types of human it is the characteristic central to young men that they have both the strongest ability and greatest inclination to pursue sexual or earthly pleasures. Solomon sets forth a remedy for this moral illness by reducing them to absurdity. He lets them do what they want, and tells them what they wish to hear. But he also reveals the certain consequences of such thought and behaviour—God will surely judge them. The irony is this: the youth who began his life in search of joy ends it in punishment and misery.
But this is not all. According to Solomon’s exhortation to these inconsistent young men in verse ten, they are to remove from them the sorrow and misery that is in their hearts. Some take this to mean that although the young have present happiness by gratifying their senses, they shall have eternal sorrow to look forward to. But there are two problems with this interpretation. Firstly, the sorrow mentioned is said to be already in their hearts now, not merely that it will be at some future point. Secondly, this view equates physical pleasure with happiness. And a Christian can in no way allow or admit these two to be the same.
In Hebrew, the word translated “sorrow” could equally be translated “anger,” as it signifies disorder and perturbation of mind. Anger is a typical passion of youth, particularly young men. We can be angry against authority, against admonition, and ultimately against God. After all, is it not God who reproves and threatens us when all we want is to be left alone in peace to do our own thing (walk in the ways of thine heart) and see what the world is like (and in the sight of thine eyes)? And so what?
Only this. The angry young man is a creature who always stands in relation to God, was originally made towards God and in the image of God, and will not find happiness until he returns and rests in his Maker. Let him have as much physical pleasure as he will, he will not be happy until evil is removed from his flesh. Let him have as much liberty as he wishes, he shall not have true freedom unless he submits to the authority of God. How can a man be happy and free when he leads a life which denies what he is, and when his life is such a mass of dreadful contradictions? Not until God is given His rightful place at the center of our angry young lives will our youth cease from being “vanity and vexation of spirit.” Without Christianity to give pleasure meaning, value, and purpose, young men who seek it are no more than angry young beasts. ❖