Is it better to be joyful or filled with sorrow? How do we reconcile these two verses?
Ecclesiastes is a book that is often pitted against itself. Critics-or more precisely the writers of online sources documenting Bible contradictions-never ask why such contradictions seem to be in abundance in this one book but that is probably irrelevant (right?).
Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.(Ecclesiastes 7:3-4 NIV)
So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 8:15 NIV)
Is it better to be happy or not? Problems like these show us why it is important to factor in the literary genre of the work we are scrutinizing. Ecclesiastes is almost its own genre in so much as nothing else can really compare to it. It’s the black sheep of wisdom literature as its structure focuses heavily on inner monologue. Readers can see more in Tekton’s article in the link below. For our purposes here it is enough to note that Ecclesiastes is very much about a man thinking through and exploring the implications of a worldview (in the case of chapter 7 it’s the “worldly” or “ungodly” one. Verse 2 is vital here. Why do critics leave it off?).
Isolated from their larger context these verses don’t make a lot of sense. But contextually, they are exploring two entirely separate worldviews. The verse on sorrow is the honest ramification of a hedonistic worldview, that is, those who ignore the reality of death and its weight and significance on the meaning of our lives and turning to empty, selfish pleasures instead. The “joy” this argues against is completely unlike the joy described in the following chapter.
It becomes obvious that chapter 8 speaks of a healthy, fulfilling joy as a follower of God. The world and its pleasures are meaningless for the person who does not fear God. For the wicked, it is far wiser to honestly examination their lives and worldview in hopes that they will seek the God who saves, however, believers can celebrate and enjoy life to the fullest, even when in the midst of trials and hardships. It’s not a question of whether joy itself is good or bad but a question of where and how one finds it. A little context goes a long way and it’s quite easy to see there is no contradiction between these two verses.