Stuart Chase - 28 Mar 2021
Life and Death (Ecclesiastes 8:16–9:6)
There is a podcast that I occasionally listen to in which the host, after interviewing a particular guest, closes with some fun, rapid-fire questions. Typical questions include things like, “What is one character quality you dislike in others?”, “What is one character quality you dislike in yourself?” and, “If you could live anywhere in the world for a year, where would it be?” The host always reserves the greatest question for last: “What is the meaning of life?”
The last question, of course, is only intended half-seriously and is designed to throw the guest off balance. It’s a serious, philosophical question after a mostly comically light-hearted interview. Surprisingly, however, most guests have an answer. To be sure, it’s typically a “their truth” kind of answer—“be kind to others” or “do those things that bring you satisfaction”—but there is usually an answer nonetheless.
Solomon was gifted by God with unique wisdom and insight. He spent a lifetime trying to discover the meaning of life, investigating every avenue he could. For the most part, however, he came up empty. He simply could not figure it out. But though he could not (at least until the very end) come up with a solid answer to the meaning of life, he had many thoughts that he offered along the way about life “under the sun.” In 8:16–9:6, he reflects on some certainties that he had learned about life and death.
We will consider five realities of life and death in this study—though we will cheat slightly by looking past our allotted text.
Life is Perplexing
The first reality that Solomon came to understand is that life is perplexing.
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, 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.
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.
We could spend a long time unpacking these verses and digging deep into what Solomon is saying, but for the sake of time, notice a repeated emphasis: “man cannot find out”; “he will not find it out”; and “he cannot find it out” (8:17). Then notice in 9:1 the phrase “man does not know.” Solomon had tried to figure out the meaning of life, but he couldn’t. He concluded, in fact, that anyone who claimed to have it all figured out was being a little less than honest. Humans cannot and will not discover everything they so desperately want to know about life.
If you find life perplexing, you’re in good company. Sometimes we lose sleep (8:16) as we try to figure out what is happening in life and why God allows it to happen, but ultimately we don’t find all the answers we are after.
Do you know the feeling? Why did God not give me that job that seems so suited to my experience and expertise? Why does God not give me a spouse or a child, despite my fervent prayers and God-given desire for marriage or motherhood? Why does God not save my loved ones despite my every effort to share the gospel with them? Why did God take my spouse, parent, child, or friend from me when I prayed so fervently for him to spare their life? Why did I get that diagnosis despite my every effort to eat healthy and exercise diligently? Sometimes, life just doesn’t make sense.
When life didn’t make sense to Solomon, he knew where to rest: “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” (9:1). Ultimately, we’re in God’s hands. He is sovereign; we are not. He gives sovereignly; we do not. He takes sovereignly; we do not. Sometimes he blesses us in his favour (“love”) and sometimes he chastens us in his displeasure (“hate”), and it’s not always easy to determine whether our circumstances are chastening or not. When we don’t understand, we must learn to trust anyway.
Death is Certain
The second reality that Solomon puts before us is that death is certain.
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. 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.
While there is so much in life that we cannot figure out, there is one thing of which we can be certain: We will die. It matters not if you are “righteous” or “wicked,” if you are “good” or “evil,” if you are “clean” or “unclean,” or if you are one “who sacrifices” or “does not sacrifice.” Death is “an evil … that is done under the sun.” At the end of life, “the same event happens to all.”
Solomon calls death an “evil.” Death, in other words, is not natural. It is not simply a fact of life; it is a fact of sin. Death was avoidable as long as humans had access to the tree of life. It is only after sin, when they were barred from the garden and thereby prevented access to the tree of life, that death became a certainty. Solomon alludes to this when he writes, “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.” Death is an evil reality because human beings, in biblical terms, are evil. We are sinners and sin has brought about death. And since we all sin, we allface the certainty of death.
Death is Sobering
The third reality that Solomon highlights is that death is sobering. It is a sobering reality in whose light we must view all of life.
But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 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. 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.
In ancient Jewish thought—particularly for those from the tribe of Judah—no wild animal was more majestic than the lion. Conversely, no animal was more despised in the ancient Near East than the dog. (Don’t think of the cute pet who you walk and who sleeps on your bed at night; think of the wild, scavenging dog that transmits all sorts of dreaded diseases.) And yet a living dog, says Solomon, is better than a dead lion. There is something profoundly precious about God’s gift of life that makes it inherently better than death.
Solomon focuses on one primary reason that life is better than death: “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. 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.” Life is better than death because this life is all we have to prepare for eternity. The living are better off because they can still prepare for eternity, while the dead have had their chance “under the sun” and that chance has now come to an end. How sobering to consider that this life—however many years it may be—is all the chance we have to prepare for eternity. If we realise that, we will do all we can to make sure that we are prepared to die.
Death is Sudden
Solomon’s fourth reflection (and here we cheat by looking beyond our assigned text) has to do with the potential suddenness of death.
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.
Solomon’s point here is that we have no guarantees. There is no guarantee that the swift will win the race or the strong will win the battle or the wise will have bread or intelligence will guarantee riches or that knowledge certainly leads to favour. There are things that we can generally expect to be true, but death has a way of interfering with the best laid plans of men. “Man does not know his time” and death frequently rears its ugly head “suddenly.”
Death comes to some in their nineties and others in their teens. We simply have no guarantee of tomorrow. More than anything, this reality means that we should do all we can to prepare for death and eternity while we yet live.
Life Can Be Superficial
Finally, Solomon highlights the truth, in light of all that has been said about death, that life can be superficial.
Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.
Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.
Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
As we reflect on the sobering realities of death—that it is certain, sobering, and sudden—the things we so value and prioritise in this life often fade into insignificance. When you reach the end of your life, are you really going to care that your washing and ironing were done every day? Are you really going to care that your hair was well cared for throughout your life? Solomon is not arguing that we shouldn’t do these things—that we shouldn’t pursue pleasure in life—but that we should do these things in light of the realities of death. Death has a way of shifting our priorities.
If there is nothing beyond this life—if life “under the sun” is all there is to our existence—then enjoy it for all it is worth right now. But, as Solomon will argue later in the book, there is life beyond this life. While he commends rejoicing, he reminds us that “God will bring you into judgement” (11:9) and concludes, “God will bring every deed into judgement, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:14).
All of this leaves us with a pressing question: If this life is all we get to prepare for eternity, and if God intends to bring every deed into judgement, how do we prepare for eternity in this life? It all comes back to 9:1 and the truth that everything is “in the hand of God.”
The Bible uses the imagery of God’s hands in two distinct and opposing ways. It is worth considering these two images as we think about what it means for us to be in God’s hands.
On the one hand, Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27–28). This is an image of utter tranquillity and security for all eternity. Those who are held securely in God’s hands have nothing to fear.
On the other hand, consider the words of the writer to the Hebrews:
Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Here, the image is one of terror and sobriety. While God’s sheep are held eternally secure in his hand, those who are not in his sheep have every reason to fear God’s hand of judgement. It is no light matter to face the certainty of death without the protection of Christ.
We must recognise that we are all in God’s hands. But we must ask what the means for us, in particular. As Philip Graham Ryken writes, “It is not enough to know that we are in God’s hands. Everyone is in God’s hands. The question is whether God’s hand is for us or against us. Is he our friend or our foe?”
So, how do you know what it means for you to be in God’s hands? How do you know whether you will experience his comforting hand of security or his terrifying hand of judgement? You know that by asking what you believe about Jesus Christ. Jesus gave his lifeblood for the sins of all who will repent and believe in him for eternal life. If you will repent and cry to him for forgiveness and cleansing, he will hold you for all eternity in his protective hand. If you will not do that—if you persist in sin, thereby trampling underfoot the Son of God and profaning the blood of the covenant—you face only “a fearful expectation of judgement, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Hebrews 10:27).
This life is all you have to prepare for eternity. What you do with Christ will determine whether you are held securely in Christ’s hand for all eternity or whether his hand of eternal destruction is against you. What will you do with Christ today?