In the Face of Death it is Hard to Understand Life (Ecclesiastes 8:16-9:6)

Solomon has been hard at work trying to figure out what life is all about, hoping to come up with some simple, unambiguous answer, something to print and hang on the bedroom wall or put up on Pinterest.  But the more he looked into things, the more he struggled to make sense of his world.

Looking for the meaning of life was like chasing one’s tail—it didn’t get Solomon anywhere.  This is a book that shows us that we will struggle with the problems of life, but as we struggle we need to learn to trust God.  Although we cannot perceive all the answers or solve all the problems, we trust that God can.  The subsections that follow begin “no one knows” or the equivalent (9:1, 12; 11:2; cf. 9:5; 10:14, 15; 11:5 twice, 6).

So Derek Kidner comments:

“Before the positive emphasis of the final three chapters can emerge, we have to make sure that we shall be building on nothing short of hard reality.  In case we should be cherishing some comforting illusions, chapter 9 confronts us with the little that we know, then with the vast extent of what we cannot handle: in particular, with death, the ups and downs of fortune, and the erratic favours of the crowd.”

And this is how the Christian life works: it is not just about what we get at the end, but also about what we become along the way. Discipleship is a journey, and not merely a destination.

And even though there is mystery in life, and especially in death, this doesn’t diminish our ability to experience joy (8:15-9:9) or to continue working with all our might (9:10-11:6). 

The Bible never condemns our attempts at understanding life.  Rather, the pursuit of knowledge is everywhere encouraged in Scripture.  We must never adopt the attitude of anti-intellectualism that characterizes some segments of Christianity.

The mind does matter.  We are to reason and think about what God is doing and what life gives us.  But we must always remember, as the argument makes clear here, that no matter how much we try to understand life, mysteries will still remain.  (Ray Stedman, Is This All There Is to Life?, 128)

No matter how hard we try or how long we labor, we cannot figure out the infinite workings of God.  With His help, we can understand His activity in part, but a full grasp of it is beyond our ability.  This point leads to the second matter we must realize–namely, that God’s mysteries go beyond human intellect and wisdom.  We cannot discover them on our own.  If He wants us to know them at all, then He must reveal them to us.  Of course, the mysteries we cannot resolve frequently cause us to struggle in our faith.  (Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge, 82-83)

Peter Kreeft, in Three Philosophies of Life reminds us that although the whole Bible is divine revelation, the book of Ecclesiastes has no speech directly from God, no direct revelation.  The book is not a dialogue, but a monologue.  It represents the best of man’s wisdom without the benefit of divine revelation.  He says, “In this book God reveals to us exactly what life is when God does not reveal to us what life is (Three Philosophies of Life, p. 23).

Here is the way Solomon puts it:

16 When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, 17 then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out.  Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out. 1 But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God.  Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. 2 It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice.  As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all.  Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. 4 But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. 6 Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.

As we’ve seen over and over again, this is an amazing book before us.  Solomon gives us every reason under the sun to be gloomy.  He tells us that death always wins, and life always cheats.  He tells us that the best effort we can put forth guarantees exactly nothing.  Then, as always, he tells us to be joyful!   (David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 240)

In vv. 16-17 Solomon acknowledges that all his seeking after wisdom and to know the works of God, despite sleepless days and nights of searching, were fruitless.  His conclusion is that “man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun.”  Here “under the sun” simply means on earth.

“The very busyness of life worries us into asking where it is taking us, and what it means, if it does mean anything. We hardly need Qoheleth to point out that this is the very question that defeats us.” (Kidner)

His conclusion is that we must be content not to know everything.  Neither hard work (toil), persistent endeavor (seeking), skill or experience (wisdom) will unravel the mystery.  Wise men may make excessive claims; they too will be baffled.  (Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 124)

From everything that we have read so far (e.g., Ecclesiastes 1:13), we know that the Preacher is telling us the honest truth about his spiritual quest.  He has been trying to learn as much about life as he can.  Both by personal experience and by careful observation, he has tried to discover the truth about things as they actually are.

His conclusion so far is that it is impossible to know for certain what God is up to in the world.  Restless days and sleepless nights might not only speak to his incessant pursuit of this knowledge, but the reality of his anxieties in not coming to a satisfying conclusion.

No matter how wise we are, and no matter how much we “toil in seeking” (Ecclesiastes 8:17), we fail to comprehend his holy ways.

You know, there is a lot of information out there in the world.  As of 2006, researchers estimated that the world generated almost 200 billion gigabytes of digital information every year (Brian Bergstein, “Overload,” The Philadelphia Inquirer (March 8, 2007), C1).  Yet that does not begin to give us a clue to the mysterious workings of God’s sovereign plan.

But Solomon does not turn into a cynic, believing that life is only “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (William Shakespeare, Macbeth , Act 5, scene 5).  He does believe that what happens in the world is “the work of God” (Eccl. 8:17).

The wise choice is to humbly submit to God’s mysterious will and to trust Him.  We should lift our hearts and voices in praise of God, like Paul did when he arrived at the great mysteries of the mind of God with regard to Israel: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?’ ” (Romans 11:33–34).

Beginning in Ecclesiastes 9 Solomon once again contemplates death.  Why?  Because remembering that we die is the great authenticator to insure that our worldview is based on reality, not illusion.

What we learn from Solomon’s “under the sun” perspective is that whether you are good or evil, a wise person or a fool, we all end up dead.  “Under the sun” it is always better to be living that dead.

The only thing that comforts us in the midst of death is this truth about God’s sovereignty expressed in verse 1: “But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God” (Eccl. 9:1).

The Bible uses the image of “the hand of God” to express God’s power, love, supervision, and control. Here the metaphor expresses his sovereign supervision of his people and their actions. God really does have “the whole world in his hands,” as the old gospel song says.  “Each one of us,” writes T. M. Moore, “without regard for what we’ve done in life, or whom we know, or what place we might occupy in our society — each one is in the hand of God, and he decides for each of us just what will be for us throughout our lives” (T. M. Moore, Ecclesiastes: Ancient Wisdom When All Else Fails: A New Translation and Interpretive Paraphrase (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), p. 65).

What a comfort and assurance to every believer!  Our lives are in his hands—hands of protection, love and security.  And we can surrender all our burdens and anxieties into His hands.

Of course, this was not the Bible’s full understanding of this issue, for Solomon was writing before the cross.  However, he realized that God was sovereign over the life of every believer.  He still struggled to understand what God was doing in the world.

His uncertainty comes out very clearly in the second half of Ecclesiastes 9:1: “Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him.”

The meaning of this verse is debatable.  The Preacher may be talking about love and hate as human emotions.  That is certainly what he means in verse 6, where he talks about “their love and their hate.”  So perhaps in verse 1 he is saying that human beings have trouble discerning the difference between love and hate.

Yet it is hard to see how this idea fits very well into the flow of his argument.  It seems more likely, therefore, to see love and hate as attributes of God.  When the Bible applies these terms to God, “love” refers to his acceptance, and “hate” refers to his rejection.  For example, when the Lord says, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated” (Romans 9:13), he means that Jacob is accepted by faith, but Esau is rejected in his unbelief.

And that leaves Solomon in a dilemma.  How does one know whether God loves and accepts, or hates and rejects, us?  He knows that our fate is in God’s hands, but is unsure how we can know our fate.  Being in God’s hands can be a good thing, as is expressed in John 10 where Jesus says “no one can ever snatch us out of his hand,” yet Scripture also affirms that “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31).  Therefore, it is not enough to know that we are in God’s hands.  We have to ask whether God’s hands are for us or against us?

The Preacher goes on to say that this is impossible to determine based on life’s circumstances.  We tend to think that the evidence of God’s blessing is a person’s health, wealth, success and popularity, but this is not necessarily so.  In Solomon’s experience God seems to treat everyone roughly the same, again making it hard to figure out whether he “loves” us or “hates” us.

In verse 2 Solomon says…

2 It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice.  As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath.

The “same event” mentioned at the beginning of verse 2 is death.  Both the righteous and the wicked, the good and the evil, the clean and the unclean, the sacrifice and the person who does not sacrifice—they all die.  Again, this is the way life (and death) appears in Solomon’s “under the sun” mentality.

Earlier the Preacher assured us that things would go well for the righteous, but not for the wicked (Ecclesiastes 8:12–13).  This will be true enough on the Day of Judgment. But in the meantime, the Preacher struggled to understand why the righteous were not blessed and the wicked were not cursed.

Back in Ecclesiastes 8:14 he talked about a reversal of fortune, in which good people get what bad people deserve and vice versa.  Here in Ecclesiastes 9:2–3 he makes a different point — not that there is a reversal of fortune, but that everyone suffers the same misfortune.

One reason it is so hard to tell whether God is for us or against us is because the same things happen to everyone.

There are two different categories of people, and in general it is good to be a part of the “good” category, but Solomon struggles with how unfair it seems that in life the righteous don’t always get what they deserve and then in death they all experience the same fate.  Again, Solomon is speaking from the “under the sun” viewpoint.  It is the same fate for all, and Solomon doesn’t like it.

Derek Kidner opines:

“To all appearances, God is just not interested.  The things that are supposed to matter most to Him turn out to make no difference – or none that anyone can see – to the way we are disposed of in the end.  Moral or immoral, religious or profane, we are all mown down alike.”

If there are heavy storms, the righteous get flooded out with the wicked.  If there is an earthquake, both of their houses fall down, and if there is a depression, they both go broke.  Thinking more optimistically, when times are good, the rising tide will lift all boats.  Therefore, we will never be able to separate the righteous from the wicked on the basis of what happens in the world.  Since God “sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45), it is impossible to tell who has and who does not have God’s eternal favor.

This frustrated the Preacher no end. In fact, he begins verse 3 by saying that the equivalence of earthly outcomes is an evil thing.  Then he ends the verse by saying, once again, that human beings are desperately wicked: “Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead” (Ecclesiastes 9:3; cf. 7:29; 8:11).

Can you sense the frustration of Solomon here?  The Preacher ended chapter 8 by denying that anyone can understand the work that God does in the world.  For a moment he gave us some hope that our lives were in the hands of a sovereign God, but then he said that it was impossible for us to know whether God is for us or against us — the same fate awaits us all.

And, on top of that, the human heart is full of so much evil that it almost drives us to madness.

Boy, don’t we see that in our culture today?  People commit acts of lawless violence, pursue self-destructive addictions, engage in sexual immoralities.  Families fall apart, children are abused, marriages end.  We are living in a world of madness.

And, worst of all, we all end up dead.  “After that,” the Preacher says, “they go to the dead” (Ecclesiastes 9:3).

In light of all this, Solomon’s “under the sun” conclusion is to live at all costs, to stay alive.  Verse 4 says…

4 But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 

Now, a lion is the “king of beasts” (Prov. 30:30), admired throughout the ancient world.  But Solomon concludes that it would be better to be a living dog than a dead lion.  Unlike dogs today, dogs in the ancient world were not “man’s best friend” or beloved pets.  They were wild scavengers (1 Kings 14:11) notorious for uncleanness (Prov. 26:11).  To call someone a dog was a social insult.  Thus, to more highly value being a dog rather than a lion was a major reversal of social and moral order.  The key factor is that the dog is still alive!

That is why Solomon says, “he who is joined with all the living has hope.”  As long as you are alive you have hope, after that, who knows?  Where there is life there is hope, “there’s always tomorrow.”  Better to face the perplexities and questions of life than to step into the nothingness of death.

Solomon goes on in vv. 5-6 to express that the living know they will die, but the dead know nothing.  They are now forgotten and have “no more reward.”  Again, remember that this is the “under the sun” worldview that omits the revelation of the afterlife with its rewards.  And, of course, there is nothing good in the afterlife, and no reward, for those who die outside of Christ.

Because of all that we lose in death, it should make us grateful to be alive.

Fortunately we have more revelation from God that helps us to know that death is not an end, but a new beginning for those of us who know Jesus Christ.  We will step into the presence of Jesus Christ, enter into the joy of our master and experience rewards and eternal life.  This book pushes us to seek after God’s truth about what comes after this life.  Fortunately, He has revealed that to us.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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