In chapter nine of Ecclesiastes, Solomon continues to reflect on the issues which he had previously introduced, but then he throws the monkey wrench into the works by pointing out the ugly fact of human mortality.
1 Because all this I gave to my heart, trying to figure it all out, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether God responds with love or hate, a man cannot know; both are possible with him. 2 It is the same for everyone, 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 fares, so fares the sinner, and someone who swears is just like someone who never promises anything. 3 This is an evil that effects everything that is done under the sun, the fact that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of human children are full of evil, and blindness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.
While collecting religious teachings from various sources, Solomon had come across the teaching that after death there is a conscious intermediate state in which there is a reckoning. This tradition asserts that all evil is punished during that intermediate state, and all good rewarded. Solomon saw no evidence to support that tradition. He was left with the scientifically observable fact that death is the same event experienced by both the righteous and the wicked. He saw this reality as terribly wrong, because it tended to lull the wicked into a false sense of security, and discouraged those who wanted to do well. It tended to create a world where all the children’s hearts were full of evil. Yet he could not deny that reality, as so many do, and invent an intermediate state to make things right.
Jesus did not deny that reality either, nor did he invent an intermediate state to make things right. He brought life and immortality to light, not by denying mortality, but by promising to raise the dead, and teaching us about the end-time judgment. Without that light, the whole world would be lost in the despair of inevitable death, with no hope for a future. Solomon posed the question. Jesus gave the answer. Jesus agreed with Solomon that death ends it all, and he added the hope of resurrection life for the redeemed when he returns.
4 Because whoever is connected with all the living has hope, because a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5 Because the living ones are aware of the fact that they will die, but the dead ones are aware of nothing, and they get no more wages, because people forget to even mention their name. 6 Their love and their hate and their envy have already been erased, and they have no more involvement in all that is done under the sun permanently.
Solomon had first concluded that it was better to be dead than alive,1 but then he changed his mind. Now he argues that it is better to be alive, even though it is only temporary. Life means awareness: the dead are not aware of what is happening. Life means the ability to enjoy wages: the dead enjoy nothing. Life means being remembered by others. The dead are eventually forgotten.
His observations of life under the sun have led Solomon to reject all that religious nonsense about survival at death. He recommends enjoying life now because it is a precious gift from God. If there will be any life after this – that also will be a gift from God. Immortality is not a given. It is conditional. This is the biblical truth behind the doctrinal label conditional immortality. The conditions for a new life after this one were met by Christ. He is our only hope or resurrection life.
Without a resurrection, even great lions like Solomon are just dead animals after they die. But those of us who are merely humble dogs are better off while we are still alive. The eternal difference is determined by who you are aligned with. Those aligned with God by faith have an eternal future, not because they survive death, but because they will overcome death when Jesus raises them to immortality.
7 Go on, eat your bread with gladness, and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; because God has already shown approval of your works. 8 Let your clothes stay white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head. 9 Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; because this is your reward in life, and for your work in which you have done under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do with all your strength; because there is no working or thinking or knowledge or wisdom waiting in Sheol where you are heading.
Again, Solomon is not teaching us that life is futile.2 He is telling us that it can be wonderful, but also warning us that it does not last. So, he does not advocate withdrawal from life in some kind of self-imposed monastic hermitage. Instead he challenges all of us to engage in life, and if we are fortunate enough to have meaningful work, a good marriage, or any of the other benefits of this life, consider it all a reward. Do not ignore those rewards. Enjoy them. Just remember that none of these things are permanent. Enjoy life’s temporary rewards, and also seek a more permanent kingdom.
We all need the good sense to enjoy these few days, and the rewards that they bring. We also need the wisdom to not turn away from the eternal hope that comes only from a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Solomon’s message is that if you are lucky enough to have a good life today, enjoy it, because it is not going to last.
11 I turned to see that the race under this sun does not go to the swift ones, and the battle does not go to the warriors, and neither does bread go to the wise, nor wealth to the discerning, nor favor to men of ability; because time and chance overtake them all. 12 Because man does not recognize his time: like fish caught in a treacherous net, and birds trapped in a snare, so the children of men are ensnared by an evil time when it suddenly falls upon them.
Conventional wisdom teaches that life is a game, and if you play by the rules and work hard, you will win the game. Horse feathers! Solomon learned that life seldom works out like that. Good seasoned warriors fail in battle, and strong capable athletes fail in the arena, and all of us fail unfairly all the time. Really smart and capable people end up unemployed and hungry. We are more like fish caught in a net, or birds caught in a snare. Life sneaks up on us while we are learning the rules and bonks us over the head.
The older and the more truly wise you get, the less you try to figure out ways to succeed, and the less success means to you. Once you get over the middle age panic – if you are mature enough – you realize that the game is not the ultimate thing. You learn to stop trying to just win the game, and focus more on maintaining your relationship with God. That is the only thing you really need to be successful at.
13 I also came across this wise saying under the sun, and it impressed me. 14 There was a small city with few men in it and a great king came to it, surrounded it, and laid large siege works against it. 15 But there was found in it a poor wise man and he delivered the city by means of his wisdom. But no one remembered that poor man. 16 So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.” But the wisdom of the poor man is going to be despised and his words are not heeded. 17 Listening to the words of the wise in quietness is better than listening to the shouting of a ruler among fools. 18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner can destroy much good.
Solomon learned that it is better to be wise than be a fool, because wisdom can help you in a crisis, as it did the city in the story that Solomon liked. But wisdom is also impermanent. It will not last. The wisdom of a poor man is going to be despised, and his words not heeded. People are fickle, and they are just as liable to ignore wisdom as applaud it. For Solomon, this was a major breakthrough, because he had spent his life in pursuit of wisdom. As an old man, he discovered that even wisdom is not the greatest treasure, because it does not last.
Living well means learning how to get wisdom without endangering our walk toward holiness. The two are wedded together in Hebrew wisdom literature. Doing what is wise is doing what is right. It is walking with integrity in all our relationships, including the vertical one. But it is the vertical relationship between us as human beings and our Creator which is most important, because it is the only thing that is going to outlast our mortal existence. No matter how strong we become, no matter how smart we get, death is waiting to steal it all from us. But death cannot steal our relationship with God, nor can it destroy his promise of an eternal future after the resurrection. Mortality is a present fact, but it does not have the last word. When Jesus returns, mortality will be swallowed up by eternal life, eternal victory.3
So, Solomon encourages us to seek wisdom, but to also realize that wisdom is not the ultimate gift. Since we are all mortal, the ultimate gift from God is Jesus Christ, who has brought the hope of eternal resurrection life to light through the gospel.4 Seek wisdom to do well in this life. Seek Christ because this life does not last.
- Ecclesiastes 4:3.
- see my article Three Solomons for an explanation of my translation of my translation of הבל.
- 1 Corinthians 15:52-54.
- 2 Timothy 1:10.