Ecclesiastes-Shaped Parenting

by Eric Brown

young boy playing outside in a sprinkler

This past July 4 holiday weekend, my wife and I took our three young boys to a local parade. I had expected to enjoy the time to only a mild degree—it was hot, our family activities are often full of drama, and we had a lot planned for later in the day. Instead, it was one of the happiest moments of parenting I can remember.

Part of the joy from the event came from the fact that I had attended the exact same parade multiple times as a child about thirty years ago, and it brought back nostalgic memories and appreciation for the simple joys of life. The classic cars and trucks looked the same, the same kinds of candy were tossed from the floats, and the weather was hot and sunny, just as it was in all my memories.

The part I enjoyed the most, however, was seeing the joy on the faces of my three boys. Our 10-year-old used my wife’s phone to take selfies with various fire trucks and floats in the background—his new way of showing how much he is enjoying something. Our 7-year-old waved his arms at anyone and everyone walking or riding by with such vigor that it looked like his arms were noodles. And our 3-year-old, who only recently started talking after a significant speech delay, only stopped talking about the man on the stilts or the sirens on the old-fashioned fire trucks so he could eat the candy being poured into his lap. It was a slice of Americana and a slice of childhood bliss all mixed into one.

But like much of life, it had tinges of sadness throughout it. The frail-looking World War II veterans riding in an antique car were probably fully aware that this could be the last July 4 parade they see. Even their presence was a reminder that the freedoms we were celebrating that day were won only by bloodshed and bombs. The presence of war is a fact of life in a fallen world (Eccl. 3:8), but it’s still a reminder of the darker side of what it means to live this side of Eden.

Mixed Joy and Sorrow

As I watched the parade go by and watched the expressions on the faces of my family, I recognized that that moment was a pure gift from God. The author of Ecclesiastes would not rebuke us for enjoying that moment with thousands of other citizens of our community. Rather, he would tell us to “eat, drink, and be joyful” (8:15) and to take these moments as from the hand of God (2:24). Our life is a vapor (James 4:14), yes, but it is a vapor worth celebrating!

Ecclesiastes is perhaps not the first book of the Bible that comes to mind concerning parenting. We might instinctively turn to passages in Ephesians or Deuteronomy before coming to this Wisdom Book. But the overarching theme of Ecclesiastes—that despite the frustrations of this fleeting life under the sun, God calls his people to enjoy life as a gift from his hand while fearing him and walking in wisdom—has everything to do with Christian parenting.

Enjoy the Pleasures of Life

Ecclesiastes calls us again and again to take pleasure in the blessings of life. Sometimes it’s in eating good food (or just food, period—3:13). Sometimes it’s in enjoying a good night’s sleep (5:12) or the simple satisfaction of a job well-done (5:18-19).

Not every part of parenting is a pleasure, but many parts are, and we do well to have our eyes open to how exciting and full of wonder the world is to a child experiencing the simple delights of life.

  • Watch a smile come across their face as they lick an ice cream cone or have watermelon juice run down their chin.
  • Hear them cackle while making snowballs, running in the sand at the beach, or riding up and down on a carousel.
  • Listen to them mimic the sounds of emergency vehicles while lying on the floor playing with cars.
  • Point out the beauty of a bird singing, or even of an ant carrying a crumb.

These ordinary moments are gifts. Each one can remind us of the privilege of teaching our children that deeper, longer-lasting pleasures are available to all who are united to Christ through the gospel. His pleasures don’t leave us feeling empty or hollow, as the fleeting pleasures of life do (2:10-11).

Prepare to Die

As I noticed the similarities to the parades I enjoyed along that same route as a child, I couldn’t help but think about the countless people who have observed or even participated in those parades who are no longer alive. My own father, who led me by the hand to that street thirty years before, is among them. In thirty or forty years, I will most likely be among them, too. Ecclesiastes is nothing if not a book about preparing to die well by living well. It is about living life aware that hard days are coming (12:1) and that the guarantee of tomorrow is a mirage (9:12). It is about remembering that the world we live in “under the sun” is broken by the curse.

So how do we teach our children to prepare to die? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Talk about death when you pass cemeteries or funeral processions.
  • Talk about people who have died and what it is to leave a legacy for those left behind.
  • Show them pictures of loved ones (parents or grandparents perhaps) who have influenced you but are no longer living.
  • Teach them that death is an enemy and intrusion in God’s world, and one that will be removed on the last day.
  • Discuss what it means to have a soul, and for your soul to be right with God in preparation for your own death.

Facing Life’s Frustrations

Life isn’t just about enjoying pleasures and then dying. There are a lot of aggravating moments in between, too, and often we as parents respond just as poorly as our children when the frustrations build up. Life is an enigma (1:2, “vanity of vanities”) that is full of hardships (11:8), uncertainties (11:6), injustices (4:1), and temptations (7:26); and we are negligent if we tell our children otherwise. Sometimes we work hard and it turns out well for us (3:12-13). But sometimes we work hard and what we toiled for is only enjoyed by strangers (2:20-21; 6:2). Sometimes we die before our time (7:17; 9:12).

We can help our children respond rightly to these challenges, however, by keeping in mind that the Lord is sovereign over those moments—he is the one who made “the day of adversity” just as much as “the day of prosperity” (7:14). We teach and model patience rather than being “quick to become angry” (7:9). We show them the blessing of having friends who help us in the midst of those frustrations, and we seek to be that kind of friend for others (4:10).

These right responses are all possible only by the transforming and sustaining grace of God, but for us as Christian parents who walk in the Spirit, they are beautiful and powerful glimpses into the purifying work of God as he patiently compels us to walk with him in a heart of faith and repentance.

Fear God and Keep His Commandments

Faithful parenting, according to Ecclesiastes, is teaching our children to fear God and keep his commandments (12:13), to surround yourself with people who do the same (4:9-12), to walk in wisdom (7:19), to love the people close to you (9:9), and to prepare to die well (12:7).

And all the while, eat the candy and clap along with the marching bands in the parades.

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