The writer of Ecclesiastes has ‘seen the business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with’ (3:10), and asks ‘What gain has the worker from his toil?’ (v.9). He concludes ‘that it is God’s gift to man that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil’ (v.13)—and this rather spare philosophy just about exhausts what he has to share with the reader by way of encouragement.
If we try to imagine how the author of Ecclesiastes looks at the world, Rembrandt van Rijn’s poignant late portrait of himself at an easel seems to serve us well. Rembrandt holds us with a steady but dispassionate gaze. There is none of the self-confidence, optimism, or ambition of a younger man. His face is calm but care worn, his brow furrowed, and under his eyes are the bags, and at his neck the slight folds, which suggest advancing age.
He was fifty-four, and although he would live another nine years, he had already experienced many of the vicissitudes which led the writer of Ecclesiastes to his unblinkingly dismal philosophy of life. His early celebrity and success had faded; his dearly loved wife had died twelve years before, along with three of the four children she had borne; and Rembrandt had faced bankruptcy and the sale of his house and possessions.
The artist’s self-portrait suggests resignation more than anything else. There is little suggestion of consolation, comfort, or joy. Except perhaps in one regard. Though Rembrandt wears elements of the lavish costumes and props in which he often dressed both his models and himself, he presents himself to us quite unequivocally as a painter, fully engaged with his work. He holds a palette and brushes in his left hand, and his maulstick in his right, and on his head, bathed in a pure bright light of a kind which hints at benediction, he wears the simple white cap of a painter.
Withdrawn to the small world of his studio, we here see the artist calmly and unexpectantly pursuing his work in the face of what had and would yet beset him—in the spirit recommended by Ecclesiastes.
3 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
2a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
3a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7a time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
9What gain has the worker from his toil?
10 I have seen the business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with. 11He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man’s mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; 13also that it is God’s gift to man that every one should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil. 14I know that whatever God does endures for ever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has made it so, in order that men should fear before him. 15That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.
16 Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. 17I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work. 18I said in my heart with regard to the sons of men that God is testing them to show them that they are but beasts. 19For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts; for all is vanity. 20All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. 21Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth? 22So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should enjoy his work, for that is his lot; who can bring him to see what will be after him?