“DEATH!” There I said it—the infamous “d” word. Death is one of those subjects we don’t like to discuss. That’s why it’s a subject of so many euphemisms. Instead of using the word dead, we say, “passed away,” “returned home,” “gone to a better place,” “sleeping in Jesus,” or “went to be with the Lord.” At least we use those terms around the church and the funeral home. In less guarded moments, we speak of “taking a dirt nap,” “kicking the bucket,” “buying the farm,” “cashing in the chips,” “biting the dust,” or the ever-popular “croaked.” Whether we lean to the reverent right or the flippant left, we shy away from speaking directly of the ultimate enemy.343
It seems that we are hesitant to come to grips with our impending death. We would rather avoid any discussion about it. After all, death is a depressing subject. And who wants to be depressed? Yet, I would argue that we are not prepared to live until we are prepared to die. Solomon tackles the subject of death head-on. Instead of denying death, he discusses its reality and our response. In Eccl 9:1-12, Solomon provides two reminders that will enable us to make the most of our few days on earth.344
- Death is certain (9:1-6). In this first section, Solomon explains that death is the “Great Equalizer.” Death plays no favorites and overlooks no one. Regardless of your strength and wealth, you are going to die. In 9:1 Solomon writes, “For I have taken all this to my heart and explain it that righteous men, wise men, and their deeds345 are in the hand346 of God. Man does not know347 whether it will be love or hatred; anything awaits him.” After much reflection, Solomon acknowledges that God is sovereign over everything and everyone. Here he states that nothing befalls the children of God that doesn’t first pass through the hands of God. Yet, with this, Solomon reminds us that we may experience “love or hatred.” The terms “love” and “hate” refer respectively to divine favor or disfavor. Solomon’s point is this: There are no guarantees as to what life will bring, but the certainty of life is that God is involved in the lives of those who trust Him. No one by even righteous deeds can gain control over God and coerce blessing from Him. One must acknowledge that all is in God’s hands.348 I’m reminded of this by the words of Bob Hope, after receiving a major award. He responded, “I don’t deserve this, but then I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that either.” Although I appreciate the humor of this remark, it is bad theology. Like Job, we are to receive both good and bad because both can come from the hand of God.
In 9:2-3, you’re going to find out why Solomon is not coming over for dinner. He writes, “It is [i.e., death] the same for all. There is one fate349 for the righteous and for the wicked;350 for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate351 for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead.” Solomon could summarize verses 2-3 with these words: “Under the sun, you’re done.” If he were living today, he would say, “We’re all going to ‘take a dirt nap.’” Ultimately, every man who has ever lived or will ever live will die. Solomon was right; the same destiny overtakes us all. You and I can work out, take our vitamins, drink bottled water, stay away from McDonalds, and swear off Krispy Kreme, but even with the best of care for this flesh, it is one day going to give out and we will die.
In 9:3, death is labeled “the evil,” not simply a natural phenomenon.352 Death is an intrusion, it’s an enemy. This means we shouldn’t go to funerals and sing The Lion King song, “The Circle of Life.” The most ridiculous and pathetic advice you could give someone is: “Death is just part of life.” No it isn’t, it is death! It’s the wages of our rebellion and sin against God. It’s cosmic treason and it is punished by death.353 We were created by a living God, to be a living people, who live forever with this living God. The only way to get rid of death is to get rid of sin. That is why Jesus died for our sin, so we could live.354 Today, will you believe in Jesus Christ as you Savior from sin? He offers you eternal and abundant life.355
Despite the inequities of life, Solomon argues that life is better than death. In 9:4-6 he explains: “For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun.”356Solomon is focused on “life under the sun,” he is not talking about “life in the Son.” The person who lives “in the Son” can leave a godly legacy and attain eternal rewards. But that is not under discussion here. Instead, Solomon is speaking of life-and-death matters. We won’t get all we should out of these verses until we recognize that in Solomon’s day, dogs were diseased mongrels that ran in packs through city streets, not pampered pets.357 People feared and loathed them. Nevertheless, Solomon says that a live dog is better than the king of the jungle who’s dead. Why? Because the living know they will die! The living may yet reckon with the reality of death and in so doing embrace the joy life has to offer, but no such possibility exists for those who have already died. Their time has passed. There is no second chance, there is no purgatory, there is no reincarnation, and there is no eternal recurrence of life. You and I are going to die. We’re going to be painted up like a circus clown. We’re going to be filled full of preservatives. We’re going to be shut in a box, thrown into a six-foot hole, and become food for worms. This is painful, but it is true.358
This is one of the best passages in the Bible to offer to one who is contemplating suicide. Life may be a terrible drudgery for you right now. Relationships may have soured, finances may be non-existent, and spiritually you may feel far from God, but if you are breathing, there is hope that things may get better. Many people have built success out of the ashes of failure.359 Relationships can be healed; sickness can be cured; work can improve. It never makes sense to take your life. If you are feeling suicidal today, please tell someone.
Solomon has pulled no punches in his death-dealing exposé. The fact that our days are numbered ought to motivate us to live earnestly for God. In light of the brevity of life, we must live with seriousness, recognizing the importance of a life well invested. Twice a week for the rest of our lives, we ought to begin the day by looking in the mirror and saying, “I am going to die someday—maybe today.” What a difference that would make in our lives. The fact that we will die should affect the way we live.
[Solomon is clear that death is certain. Now he reminds us that…]
- Life is uncertain (9:7-12). In this section, Solomon urges us to make the most of our lives because time and chance can overtake us. In 9:7-10, Solomon unveils five imperatives that advocate living life to the fullest (“go,” “eat,” “drink,” “enjoy,” and “do”). These five imperatives are located in the central part of this chapter and are recorded there to present the central thrust of the chapter: life is short; death is certain; so live in the most meaningful way that you can.360
- Party while you can (9:7-8). In 9:7 Solomon writes, “Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works.” Solomon says, “Party on down with family and friends, for life is short and then you die.” Throughout the Scriptures, wine and bread are frequently representative of that which God gives us to comfort and cheer us.361 Even today they are symbols of the joy of the Lord and His goodness and blessing. Thus, we are to enjoy God’s good gifts and celebrate life with others. So slow down and enjoy a meal with your family and friends. The reason Solomon gives is that “God has already approved your works.” This means such enjoyment is God’s will for us. This encouraging word does not contradict the fact that we are the stewards of all God entrusts to us. However, it should help us realize that it is not sinful to take pleasure in what God has given us—even luxuries. We need to balance gratefulness and generosity, retaining some things and giving away others. This balance is not easy, but it is important.
- Solomon continues in 9:8 by saying, “Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head.” In the Old Testament, births, weddings, and harvest festivals were special occasions and required one to dress up and be fresh. In Solomon’s day, black clothes and ashes on the head were a sign of mourning. Conversely, white clothes and oil362 on the head were a sign of rejoicing. “Oil on your head” is the ancient equivalent of deodorant and perfume and cologne, so do yourself and others a favor and use it. Solomon tells us to dress every day as if we’re on the way to a celebration of life.363 Some would say, “What do I have to rejoice about? I could die any time.” Exactly! That’s a great reason to let every waking moment be a celebration of God’s gift of life. Get dressed. Eat out with a friend. Why? Because you can and because God enjoys your enjoyment.364 Therefore, “have a blast while you last.”365
- Enjoy your spouse while you can (9:9). Solomon writes, “Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun.” Solomon had many honeys and many honeymoons—to the demise of his kingdom. He treated himself to hundreds of wives and concubines. Now, at the end of his life, he wishes he had lavished all his love on the wife of his youth. A man who had a thousand women now speaks in the singular rather than the plural. One partner, one heart.366 Husbands, love your wife with every fiber of your being, for this may be your last day on earth. Listen to her, talk with her, spend time with her, make love to her no matter how many times she resists, tell her she is beautiful. Wives, we know this works both ways. Are you easy to enjoy? I will tell you that if you want your husband to enjoy you, be easy to enjoy. If you want your husband to desire your company, make your company pleasant to be around. You might say, “This is hard, she needs to show me first” or “He needs to demonstrate leadership.” But guess what…you’re going to die! What are you waiting for? Don’t waste your time; enjoy your life. Enjoy it now! Have a blast while you last.
- Glynn Wolfe died alone in Los Angeles at the age of 88. No one came to claim his body; the city paid to have him buried in an unmarked grave. This is sad, but not unusual. It happens all too often in large cities where people tend to live disenfranchised lives. Glynn’s situation was unique, however, because he was no ordinary man. He held a world record. The Guinness Book listed him as the Most Married Man, with 29 marriages to his credit. This means 29 times he was asked, “Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife…forsaking all others, do you pledge yourself only to her, so long as you both shall live?” Twenty-nine times Glynn Wolf said, “I do,” but it never quite worked out that way. He left behind several children, grand-children, great grand-children, a number of living ex-wives, and innumerable ex-in-laws—and still, he died alone. He spent his entire adult life looking for something he apparently never found—and he died alone.367
- How different this man’s life and death would have been if he invested all his love and energy into one woman. There is an ancient quote from The Talmud—a commentary on Jewish law—that states, “A man should eat and drink beneath his means, clothe himself within his means, and honor his wife above his means.”368 This summarizes well the last three verses.
- Do your work while you can (9:10). Solomon writes, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.”369 The word “hand” suggests ability, “find” suggests opportunity, and “might” suggests intensity. Solomon wants us to know that we have only one life to make our contribution, “for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.” The Hebrew word Sheol refers to the abode of the dead.370 Solomon is saying: When death overtakes us, our time to plan, be active, and execute wisdom will have come to a screeching halt. Sheol kills earthly work! That is why we must work while we can.371
Work is a privilege that we will not have after we die. Probably, toil connected with the curse on nature is in view here. We will be active in service in heaven, for example, but this will not be work as we know it now (Rev 22:3). If you think work is not a blessing, spend some time talking with someone who has been out of work for a long time.372 Throw yourself into something besides bed! You only get one shot at it. Do something worthwhile. Make a contribution.
I’ve read that a man or woman of fifty, having worked consistently since school, will have put in 56,000 hours of work. Imagine if you will, 56,000 hours of boredom and resentment. Who would come through such an ordeal with a sound mind? Yet a poor attitude towards one’s job creates that environment. Now imagine someone rising in the morning to say, “Thank You, Lord! Another day to use the gifts and the strength and the mind You have given me. What a gift You have given me that I may work and serve.” That mind-set will add years to your life and life to your years. It will also bring you success, promotions, and glory for God.373
Charles Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, often worked eighteen hours a day. Famous explorer and missionary, David Livingstone, once asked him, “How do you manage to do two men’s work in a single day?” Spurgeon replied, “You have forgotten that there are two of us.”374 Surgeon was right. We have the Holy Spirit working in and through us. He can and should make work a pleasure not a pain. So have a blast while you last.
Tragically, many Christians live as if it is a sin to enjoy life.375 Yet, God created man and woman to live in a place called Eden, which means “delight.” The Bible teaches that one day we will live on a new earth that will be like Eden once again.376 So we are to prepare now by living a life of joy. The Hebrews knew joy perhaps better than any culture. In the Old Testament, there are no less than ten different words for “joy.”377 What is the level of joy in your life?
Every year I teach a class called “Eschatology” (i.e., the study of last things) at Ecola Bible School. One of the homework questions I ask my students is, “How would you live today if you knew it would be your last?” Some students give what they think are spiritual responses such as, “I would read my Bible all day and share Jesus with my loved ones.” However, many of the students say, “I would have a good meal with my family and friends. I would tell others how much I love them. I would go skydiving.” They figure if I haven’t read my Bible or shared Christ like I should, why bother doing so in my last day? People and enjoyment are what is meaningful to them. So have a blast while you last.
The last two verses of this section could serve as a summary for the entire book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon writes, “I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all.” But just in case we are confident in our strengths and gifts to help us make our mark, Solomon lists five desirable assets: the “swift,” the “strong,” the “wise,” the “discerning,” and “to men of ability.” He then informs us that these talented individuals do not always win and find great success. Wisdom, skill, and hard work can promote but not guarantee success. This is true because “time and chance overtake them all.”378 First, time limits us. This is an echo of the teaching throughout Ecclesiastes that the seasons of our life are in the hand of God. This is a warrant for faith but also a death-blow for self-confidence. Second, chance is the unexpected event which may throw the most accomplished off course, despite the most thoroughly prepared schemes. Time and chance overtakes humankind just like death itself.379 So have a blast while you last.
Solomon concludes in 9:12 with these powerful words: “Moreover, man does not know his time: like fish caught in a treacherous net and birds trapped in a snare, so the sons of men are ensnared at an evil380 time when it suddenly falls on them.” Unfortunately, man does not often recognize this truth. We live as if we are the master of our own fate, the captain of our soul. How foolish we are! Rather than the master of our fate, we are more like little fish. We swim along, minding our own business, and suddenly we are snatched up by a net…and there is absolutely nothing that we can do about it! Time, chance, and death catch one unexpectedly, like a trap, and there is no escape. When the trap has closed, any opportunity to enjoy life is over. Just stop for a moment and think about it: What will we do if our heart or lungs fails us? What can we do if we contract a fatal disease? What can we do if we lose our job or our business? What will we do if a child dies or if a spouse leaves us? Sooner or later, we will all find out that our present existence and future destiny belong to the Lord alone. So have a blast while you last.
In a sense, this verse is a microcosm of the whole book of Ecclesiastes. So much of life is enigmatic and fails to conform to the rules we have learned. We’ve been taught that if you want to succeed you have to compete and be aggressive, get up earlier, go to bed later, put in more hours, do unto them before they do unto you. But, says Solomon, it doesn’t always work that way. Nothing is guaranteed. This is how life is, but we shouldn’t despair nor should we quit aiming to be swift, strong, wise, brilliant and learned. We should, however, quit thinking that life owes us anything, or, for that matter, that God owes us anything under the sun. Now if you talk about the long run, that’s a different story. Even Solomon says in 8:12: “Although a wicked man commits a hundred crimes and still lives a long time, I know that it will go better with God-fearing men, who are reverent before God.” But in the meantime, often it will seem that time and chance play a bigger part in our lives than God’s providence.
You play the board game Monopoly. You buy railroads and place hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk. You pass “Go” and collect $200. Everyone has fun. Then the game ends, and all the hotels, all the colorful tokens, and all the funny money go back into the box. Solomon, who held an empire much less plastic, would tell us that whether you build in plastic or gold it’s all the same. Build the temple, extend a dynasty, even write three God-inspired books—in the end, it all goes back in the box.381 Likewise, life is short. You and I are going to die. Stop and ask yourself, “What really matters? How do I want to be remembered? What do I want others to say about me?” And then make a commitment to have a blast while you last.
“Oh why do people waste their breath Inventing dainty names for death?”
John Betjeman, the late Poet Laureate of England, wrote those words in his poem “Graveyards.” Every honest person can answer the question, as Betjeman did in his poem: we invent “dainty names” because we don’t want to face up to the reality of death. Sociologist Ernest Becker claimed “that of all things that move men, one of the principal ones is his terror of death” (The Denial of Death, p. 11).
During many years of pastoral ministry, I have seen this denial in action. When visiting bereaved families, I have noticed how often people deliberately avoid the word “death” and substitute phrases like “left us,” “went home,” “went to sleep,” or “passed on.” Of course, when a Christian dies, he or she does “go to sleep” and “go home,” but this assurance should not make death any less real in our thinking or our feeling. The person who treats death lightly may fear death the most. If we take life seriously—and we should—then we can’t treat death flippantly.
This is not the first time the subject of death has come into Solomon’s discourse, nor will it be the last. (See 1:4; 2:14-17; 3:18-20; 4:8; 5:15-16; 6:6; 8:8; 12:1-7.) After all, the only way to be prepared to live is to be prepared to die. Death is a fact of life, and Solomon examined many facets of life so that he might understand God’s pattern for satisfied living. Robert E. Lee’s last words were, “Let the tent be struck!” Unless Jesus Christ returns and takes us to heaven, we will one day “strike our tent” (2 Cor. 5:1-8) and leave the battlefield for a better land. We must be ready.
In this chapter, Solomon drew two conclusions: death is unavoidable (1-10) and life is unpredictable (11-18). That being the case, the best thing we can do is trust God, live by faith, and enjoy whatever blessings God gives us.
- Death is unavoidable (ECCL. 9:1-10)
“I’m not afraid to die;” quipped Woody Allen, “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” But he will be there when it happens, as must every human being, because there is no escaping death when your time has come. Death is not an accident, it’s an appointment (Heb. 9:27), a destiny that nobody but God can cancel or change.
Life and death are “in the hand of God” (v. 1), and only He knows our future, whether it will bring blessing (“love”) or sorrow (“hatred”). Solomon was not suggesting that we are passive actors in a cosmic drama, following an unchangeable script handed to us by an uncaring director. Throughout this book, Solomon has emphasized our freedom of discernment and decision. But only God knows what the future hold for us and what will happen tomorrow because of the decisions we make today.
“As it is with the good man, so with the sinner.” (v. 2, niv). If so, why bother to live a godly life?” someone may ask. “After all, whether we obey the Law or disobey, bring sacrifices or neglect them, make or break promises, we will die just the same.” Yes, we share a common destiny on earth—death and the grave—but we do not share a common destiny in eternity. For that reason, everybody must honestly face “the last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26) and decide how to deal with it. Christians have trusted Jesus Christ to save them from sin and death; so, as far as they are concerned, “the last enemy” has been defeated (Rom. 6:23; John 11:25-26; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 1 Cor. 15:51-58). Unbelievers don’t have that confidence and are unprepared to die.
How people deal with the reality of death reveals itself in the way they deal with the realities of life. Solomon pointed out three possible responses that people make to the ever-present fear of death.
Escape (v. 3).
The fact of death and the fear of death will either bring out the best in people or the worst in people; and too often it is the worst. When death comes to a family, it doesn’t create problems; it reveals them. Many ministers and funeral directors have witnessed the “X-ray” power of death and bereavement as it reveals the hearts of people. In facing the death of others, we are confronted with our own death, and many people just can’t handle it.
“The heart of the sons of men is full of evil,” and that evil is bound to come out. People will do almost anything but repent in order to escape the reality of death. They will get drunk, fight with their relatives, drive recklessly, spend large amounts of money on useless things, and plunge into one senseless pleasure after another, all to keep the Grim Reaper at arm’s length. But their costly endeavors only distract them from the battle; they don’t end the war, because “the last enemy” is still there.
Those of us who were privileged to have the late Joseph Bayly as our friend know what a positive attitude he had toward death. He and his wife had been through the valley many times and God used them to bring comfort and hope to other sorrowing pilgrims. His book The Last Thing We Talk About (David C. Cook Pub. Co.) is a beautiful testimony of how Jesus Christ can heal the brokenhearted. “Death is the great adventure,” said Joe, “beside which moon landings and space trips pale into insignificance.”
You don’t get that kind of confidence by trying to run away from the reality of death. You get it by facing “the last enemy” honestly, turning from sin and trusting Jesus Christ to save you. Have you done that?
Endurance (vv. 4-6).
When confronted by the stern fact of death, not everybody dives into an escape hatch and shouts, “Let’s eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!” Many people just grit their teeth, square their shoulders and endure. They hold on to that ancient motto, “Where there’s life, there’s hope!” (That’s a good paraphrase of v. 4.)
That motto goes as far back as the third century B.C. It’s part of a conversation between two farmers who are featured in a poem by the Greek poet Theokritos. “Console yourself, dear Battos,” says Korydon. “Things may be better tomorrow. While there’s life there’s hope. Only the dead have none.” Shades of Ecclesiastes!
Solomon would be the last person to discourage anybody from hoping for the best. Better to be a living dog (and dogs were despised in that day) than a dead lion. All that the Preacher asked was that we have some common sense along with our hope, lest too late we find ourselves grasping a false hope.
To begin with, let’s keep in mind that one day we shall die (v. 5). The Christian believer has “a living hope,” not a “dead” hope, because the Saviour is alive and has conquered death (1 Peter 1:3-5; 2 Tim. 1:10). A hope that can be destroyed by death is a false hope and must be abandoned.
What Solomon wrote about the dead can be “reversed” and applied to the living. The dead do not know what is happening on earth, but the living know and can respond to it. The dead cannot add anything to their reward or their reputation, but the living can. The dead cannot relate to people on earth by loving, hating, or envying, but the living can. Solomon was emphasizing the importance of seizing opportunities while we live, rather than blindly hoping for something better in the future, because death will end our opportunities on this earth.
“The human body experiences a powerful gravitational pull in the direction of hope,” wrote journalist Norman Cousins, who himself survived a near-fatal illness and a massive heart attack. “That is why the patient’s hopes are the physician’s secret weapon. They are the hidden ingredients in any prescription.”
We endure because we hope, but “hope in hope” (like “faith in faith”) is too often only a kind of self-hypnosis that keeps us from facing life honestly. While a patient may be better off with an optimistic attitude, it is dangerous for him to follow a false hope that may keep him from preparing for death. That kind of hope is hopeless. When the end comes, the patient’s outlook may be cheerful, but the outcome will be tragic.
Life is not easy, but there is more to life than simply enduring. There is a third response to the fact of death, a response that can be made only by those who have trusted Jesus Christ as their Saviour.
Enjoyment (vv. 7-10).
This has been one of Solomon’s recurring themes (2:24; 3:12-15, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15), and he will bring it up again (11:9-10). His admonition “Go thy way!” means: “Don’t sit around and brood! Get up and live!” Yes, death is coming, but God gives us good gifts to enjoy so enjoy them!
Solomon didn’t urge us to join the “jet set” and start searching for exotic pleasures in far away places. Instead, he listed some of the common experiences of home life: happy leisurely meals (v. 7), joyful family celebrations (v. 8), a faithful, loving marriage (v. 9), and hard work (v. 10). What a contrast to modern society’s formula for happiness: fast food and a full schedule, the addictive pursuit of everything new, “live-in marriages,” and shortcuts guaranteed to help you avoid work but still get rich quick.
In recent years, many voices have united to call us back to the traditional values of life. Some people are getting tired of the emptiness of living on substitutes. They want something more substantial than the “right” labels on their clothes and the “right” names to drop at the “right” places. Like the younger brother in our Lord’s parable (Luke 15:11-24), they have discovered that everything that’s really important is back home at the Father’s house.
Enjoy your meals (v. 7).
The average Jewish family began the day with an early snack and then had a light meal (“brunch”) sometime between 10:00 and noon. They didn’t eat together again until after sunset. When their work was done they gathered for the main meal of the day. It consisted largely of bread and wine, perhaps milk and cheese, with a few vegetables and fruit in season, and sometimes fish. Meat was expensive and was served only on special occasions. It was a simple meal that was designed to nourish both the body and the soul, for eating together (“breaking bread”) was a communal act of friendship and commitment.
King Solomon sat down to a daily feast (1 Kings 4:22-23), but there is evidence that he didn’t always enjoy it. “Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred” (Prov. 15:17, niv). “Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife” (Prov. 17:1, niv). The most important thing on any menu is family love, for love turns an ordinary meal into a banquet. When the children would rather eat at a friend’s house than bring their friends home to enjoy their mother’s cooking, it’s time to take inventory of what goes on around the table.
Enjoy every occasion (v. 8).
Life was difficult in the average home, but every family knew how to enjoy special occasions such as weddings and reunions. That’s when they wore their white garments (a symbol of joy) and anointed themselves with expensive perfumes instead of the usual olive oil. These occasions were few, so everybody made the most of them.
But Solomon advised the people to wear white garments always and to anoint themselves always with special perfume. Of course, his congregation didn’t take his words literally, because they knew what he was saying: make every occasion a special occasion, even if it’s ordinary or routine. We must not express our thanksgiving and joy only when we are celebrating special events. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4, nkjv).
Among other things, this may be what Jesus had in mind when He told His disciples to become like little children (Matt. 18:1-6). An unspoiled child delights in the simple activities of life, even the routine activities, while a pampered child must be entertained by a variety of expensive amusements. It’s not by searching for special things that we find joy, but by making the everyday things special.
Enjoy your marriage (v. 9).
Solomon knew nothing about “live-in couples” or “trial marriages.” He saw a wife as a gift from God (Prov. 18:22; 19:14) and marriage as a loving commitment that lasts a lifetime. No matter how difficult life may be, there is great joy in the home of the man and woman who love each other and are faithful to their marriage vows. Solomon would agree with psychiatrist M. Scott Peck who calls commitment “the foundation, the bedrock of any genuinely loving relationship” (The Road Less Traveled, p. 140).
It’s too bad Solomon didn’t live up to his own ideals. He forsook God’s pattern for marriage and then allowed his many wives to seduce him from the Lord (1 Kings 11:1-8). If he wrote Ecclesiastes later in life, as I believe he did, then verse 9 is his confession, “Now I know better!”
Enjoy your work (v. 10).
The Jewish people looked upon work, not as a curse, but as a stewardship from God. Even their rabbis learned a trade (Paul was a tent maker) and reminded them, “He who does not teach a son to work, teaches him to steal.” Paul wrote, “If any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thes. 3:10).
“Do it with all your might” (nasb) suggests two things: Do your very best, and do it while you still have strength. The day may come when you will have to lay down your tools and make way for a younger and stronger worker. Colossians 3:17 applies this principle to the New Testament Christian.
The things that make up employment in this life will not be present in the grave (sheol, the realm of the dead), so make the most of your opportunities now. One day our works will be judged, and we want to receive a reward for His glory (1 Cor. 3:10ff; Col. 3:23-25).
If we fear God and walk by faith we will not try to escape or merely endure life. We will enjoy life and receive it happily as a gift from the Lord.
- Life is unpredictable (ECCL. 9:11-18)
Anticipating the response of his listeners (and his readers), Solomon turned from his discussion of death and began to discuss life. “If death is unavoidable,” somebody would argue, “then the smartest thing we can do is major on our strengths and concentrate on life. When death comes, at least we’ll have the satisfaction of knowing we worked hard and achieved some success.”
“Don’t be too sure of that!” was Solomon’s reply. “You can’t guarantee what will happen in life, because life is unpredictable.”
To begin with, our abilities are no guarantee of success (vv. 11-12). While it is generally true that the fastest runners win the races, the strongest soldiers win the battles, and the smartest and most skillful workers win the best jobs, it is also true that these same gifted people can fail miserably because of factors out of their control. The successful person knows how to make the most of “time and procedure” (8:5), but only the Lord can control “time and chance” (v. 11).
Solomon already affirmed that God has a time for everything (3:1-8), a purpose to be fulfilled in that time (8:6), and “something beautiful” to come out of it in the end (3:11). The word “chance” simply means occurrence or event. It has nothing to do with gambling. We might say, “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and I got the job. Ability had very little to do with it!”
Of course, Christians don’t depend on such things as “luck” or “chance,” because their confidence is in the loving providence of God. A dedicated Christian doesn’t carry a rabbit’s foot or trust in lucky days or numbers. Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock said, “I’m a great believer in luck. I find that the harder I work, the more I have of it.” Christians trust God to guide them and help them in making decisions, and they believe that His will is best. They leave “time and chance” in His capable hands.
Who knows when trouble will arrive on the scene and wreck all our great plans (v. 12)? When they least expect it, fish are caught in the net and birds are caught in the trap. So men are snared in “evil times,” sudden events that are beyond their control. That’s why we should take to heart the admonition against boasting (James 4:13-17).
Second, our opportunities are no guarantee of success (vv. 13-18). It is not clear whether the wise man actually delivered the city, or whether he could have saved it, and was asked but did not heed. I lean toward the second explanation because it fits in better with verses 16-18. (The Hebrew allows for the translation “could have”; see the verse 15 footnote in the nasb). The little city was besieged and the wise man could have delivered it, but nobody paid any attention to him. Verse 17 suggests that a ruler with a loud mouth got all of the attention and led the people into defeat. The wise man spoke quietly and was ignored. He had the opportunity for greatness but was frustrated by one loud ignorant man.
“One sinner [the loud ruler] destroys much good” (v. 18, nkjv) is a truth that is illustrated throughout the whole of Scripture, starting with Adam and his disobedience to God (Gen. 3; Rom. 5). Achan sinned and brought defeat on the army of Israel (Joshua 7). David’s sin brought trouble to Israel (2 Sam. 24), and the revolt of Absalom led the nation into a civil war (2 Sam. 15ff).
Since death is unavoidable and life is unpredictable, the only course we can safely take is to yield ourselves into the hands of God and walk by faith in His Word. We don’t live by explanations; we live by promises. We don’t depend on luck but on the providential working of our loving Father as we trust His promises and obey His will.
As we walk by faith, we need not fear our “last enemy,” because Jesus Christ has conquered death. “Fear not; I am the first and the last; I am He that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore” (Rev. 1:17-18). Because He is alive, and we live in Him, we don’t look at life and say, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!”
Instead, we echo the confidence expressed by the Apostle Paul: “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:57-58, nkjv).
345 This is the only place in the OT where this word, which normally is used of “service God,” is used as a noun.
346 “Hand” = “power,” cf. Eccl 2:24; Job 19:21; 27:11; Ps 10:12; 17:7.
347 The subsections that follow begin “no one knows” or the equivalent (Eccl 9:1, 12; 11:2; cf. 9:5; 10:14, 15; 11:5 [twice], 6).
348 Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993),
349 The word translated “fate” (miqreh) should be translated “event” instead. Solomon refers only to that which “meets men at the end of their lives, an “event,” a “happening,” or “outcome.”
350 The “wicked” and “righteous” both refer to covenant people (not people of the world) because this follows the theology of Deut 31:29 and Jdgs 2:19.
351 The word translated as “fate” (miqreh) appears only rarely outside of the Book of Ecclesiastes, one time each in 1 Sam 6:9 (“chance” – NASB), in 1 Sam 20:26 (“accident” – NASB), and in Ruth 2:3 (not translated, but is subsumed by the verb “happened” – NASB). Within the Book of Ecclesiastes, the author consistently (all seven times) uses this word to reference the ultimate end (“under the sun”) of all animate beings – that ultimate end being “death” (Eccl 2:14, 15; 3:19 [3x]; 9:2, 3). Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.
352 This too is a meditation on the fall; humanity has been cut off from the tree of life (Gen 3:8-24).
353 Paul writes, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…For the wages of sin is death” (Rom 3:23; 6:23a).
354 David Fairchild, “Living While Dying” (Eccl 9:1-12).
355 Jesus Himself said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have itabundantly” (John 10:10).
356 Verses 4-6 do not contradict 4:2-3 where Solomon said the dead are better off than the living. A person who is suffering oppression may feel it is preferable to be dead (4:1), but when a person is dead his opportunities for earthly enjoyment are non-existent (9:4-6). Dr. Thomas L. Constable, “Notes on Ecclesiastes”; 2007 edition: http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/ecclesiastes.pdf, 24.
357 See 1 Sam 17:43; 24:14.
358 Fairchild, “Living While Dying.”
359 Michael P. Andrus, “Sharp Goads and Hard Nails” (Eccl 7-11): unpublished sermon notes.
360 Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.
361 Eccl 2:24; 3:13; 5:18; 8:15; cf. Gen. 14:18; 1 Sam 16:20; 25:18; Neh 5:15; Lam 2:12.
362 Putting oil on the face and arms was a sign of gladness (cf. Ps 23:5; 45:7; 104:15; Isa 61:3).
363 Paul joins the chorus: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil 4:4) And “rejoice always” (1 Thess 5:16).
364 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 233.
365 This clever title/slogan comes from Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge: Coming to Terms with Reality, Bible Study Guide (Fullerton, CA: Insight for Living, 1986), 250.
366 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 234.
367 Preaching Today citation: Steve May, Sermonnotes.com.
368 Preaching Today citation: The Talmud; submitted by Aaron Goerner, Utica, NY.
369 It is quite possible that the Apostle Paul had Eccl 9:10 in mind when he wrote Col 3:23, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.” His point is: Life must be lived to the fullest in all that you do. Elsewhere, Paul wrote, “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). A helpful maxim here is, “Doing a little thing for God makes it a big thing.” The reason being, our God is not a little god…He is a colossal God! Anything that is done for the Lord and His glory is an enormously significant work!
370Sheol occurs sixty-five times in the OT and is translated “grave” in approximately half of those instances. The word sheol encompasses the region of departed spirits who are conscious, either in bliss or torment. Since the writers of the OT believed in an afterlife, sheol never means just the grave.
371 Jesus said, “We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4).
372 Constable, “Notes on Ecclesiastes,” 25.
373 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 234.
374 Preaching Today citation: “Charles Haddon Spurgeon,” Christian History, no. 29.
375 Lest we think that only the ancient Hebrew readers to whom the author of Ecclesiastes was writing are those who should heed Solomon’s advice (commands), the authors of the NT concur. See Matt 5:16; 1 Cor 10:31; Eph 5:28, 33; Phil 4:4; Col 3:17, 23; 1 Thess 5:18; 1 Tim 6:17.
376 See Rev 21-22.
377 See Neh 8:10; Ps 104:31; Zeph 3:17.
378 Five accomplishments are listed, none of which guarantees success or prosperity: (1) the swift-footed may find himself a loser (cf. 2 Sam 2:18); (2) military strength is no guarantee of success in battle (cf. Isa 36-37); (3) wisdom similarly is no guarantee of a livelihood (cf. Eccl 9:13-16; 10:1); (4) understanding may be accompanied by poverty (cf. Eccl 9:15); and (5) favor may be delayed for innocent Joseph (Gen 37-41) and not come at all for others (Eccl 9:13-16). Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 16. The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, ed. by D. J. Wiseman (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 130.
379 The prophet Jeremiah explained why these apparent “upsets’ in the natural order of things happen: “It is not for man to direct his steps” (Jer 10:23). Ultimately God is sovereign and in complete control.
380 Nowhere in Scripture, here or in its seven other occurrences (Jer 2:27, 28; 11:12; 15:11; Amos 5:13; Mic 2:3; and Ps 37:19)—with the possible exception of Amos 5:13—do the authors of Scripture use the phrase to indicate a condition of sinfulness. Instead, those writers use this phrase to denote a time of disaster, trouble, or calamity. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.
381 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 227.