Ecclesiastesby Philip E. Satterthwaite
In Ecclesiastes 8, the Teacher has reflected on how little we understand God's ways (vv. 10-17). In 8:15 he gives what is apparently his practical response to these troubling reflections: don't dwell on these things; take time instead to enjoy food, drink, and friends-all the things that cheer you up! You may have wondered how convincing this response actually is. In chapter 9, the Teacher addresses this issue in depth. He begins, in today's passage, by once more considering life's enigmas.
″The righteous and the wise and what they do are in God's hands″ (9:1): we may expect that this will lead on to a comforting reflection, along the lines, ″God will guide their lives and protect them from evil″. But what actually follows? ″No one knows whether love or hate awaits them.″ There are no guarantees. For both righteous and wicked, all possibilities remain open: they may experience either good or evil. The Teacher expresses this point in a way which focuses our attention on God's attitude towards the righteous and the wicked. Look at what both groups experience in life: is it clear that God loves the one group and hates the other? Not really.
Moreover, all share the same fate (v. 2). In death everyone looks the same, no matter how they behaved while alive (see also 2:14-17). The Teacher finds this, quite simply, ″evil″ (9:3), the worst feature of life ″under the sun″: during our lives we experience something of the misery and madness of this world (see also 4:1-3; 5:13-17)-and then we die!
The Teacher finds this prospect appalling. It's not that life is necessarily enjoyable for everyone: the comparison between a living dog and a dead lion (9:4) suggests that for some at least life is a ″brutish″ affair; and while you are alive your mind may be weighed down with thoughts of your coming death (v. 5). But at least you are still alive! When you are dead everything is over (vv. 5-6): you know nothing; you enjoy nothing; everything that made you what you were, good and bad-your love, your hate, your jealousy-has simply vanished. ″Never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.″
This is all very bleak, a low point in the book. It is not, of course, the Teacher's last word. But we should not hastily dismiss these reflections: this is how life seems to many today; and, unless the Lord returns first, we will all die. We should be grateful for the grim realism of these verses, which may prepare us for times when disaster strikes (vv. 11-12). Christianity has an answer to evils like injustice, misery, and death, but it is no part of Christian faith to pretend that these things, in themselves, are anything other than evil.
But first (vv. 7-10), another drink!
We believe in a Saviour who has ″destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel″ (2 Timothy 1:10). Why is it still important to consider today's passage about death?
It may seem that the Teacher cannot make his mind up as to whether life is a good thing: his comments in Ecclesiastes 9:4-6 seem decidedly double-edged (see also 4:3). Many people today would share his views. Do you think texts like today's passage can be used as a bridge to reach such people with the gospel? Why?