Ecclesiastes 8:16 - 9:18.
The Hopelessness of Life Under the Sun

American Journal of Biblical Theology,
Copyright © 2013, John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV

Ecclesiastes 8:16.  When I applied mine heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done upon the earth: (for also there is that neither day nor night seeth sleep with his eyes:)

Many of us probably spend some time thinking about some of the grave and significant issues of life.  Some of these subjects might include the future security of our lives on this earth such as, will we be healthy?, will we become rich?, will we become poor?   Young people may think about a future with a marriage and family.  Some who have not chosen a career path often spend time considering their potential interests and how they can be applied in employment. 

It is evident from Solomon’s repeated testimony that he spent a considerable amount of time and effort grappling with some of the deep questions of life.  Solomon revealed early in his life that his greatest desire was to have the wisdom to find answers to these questions and to apply them for his own benefit and for the benefit of those who the LORD called him to serve.  This was most evident shortly after Solomon was anointed as the King over Israel, and understanding the gravity of his responsibilities he asked the LORD for understanding to discern judgment.[1]  Though the scriptures then record the giving of wisdom to Solomon by the LORD, it is quite evident that the LORD’s wisdom was already with him by the way he approached his responsibility as the King, and by his desire for wisdom rather than power and riches. 

This short passage reveals that Solomon spent a considerable amount of time applying that wisdom through the study of the behavior of the wicked world that surrounded him.  He spent many sleepless nights wrestling with the tremendous theological conflict that he perceived between the righteousness of God and the wickedness of the world.  It was his desire to understand the nature of God and the nature of the world wherein he found himself immersed.

Ecclesiastes 8:17.  Then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labour to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea further; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it.

As Solomon observes the world around himself, he finds that people tend to place a great priority on, and are willing to work hard to determine the impact of future events on their lives.  Many people fear tomorrow when they observe the insecurities of this world.  However, as much as they may try to read the stars, analyze horoscopes, seek those who claim to be mediums, psychics, and fortune tellers, there is simply no means by which man can determine what is going to take place in the future with any detail.  Of course, if we plant an acorn, we can “prophesy” that an oak tree will grow in its place in the future.  This is not the form of prophecy that Solomon is describing.  He is observing those who are expressing any number of anxieties over what their lives will be like in the future.  Even the wisest of men (which, presumably includes himself) lacks the ability to see into the future.  It is natural for one to desire to be in control of their lives, and in control of their future.

The world culture in Solomon’s era, as well as much of it today, sought to have their lives influenced for the better, and often did so through the fabrication and worship of mythical gods that became more and more real to people as their traditions and supposed histories were passed down from generation to generation.  The ancient near-eastern culture had, literally, thousands of these gods who they would call upon, requesting their influence in their lives.  Thinking that these gods were real, the people would follow all manner of traditions and rituals in the hope that the Gods will change the events of their lives for the better.

Though we may not be personally familiar with the worship of ancient gods, there is a parallel in modern culture that is wrapped around the concept of experiencing “luck” or “being lucky.”  The very idea of luck is that somehow the “gods” will supernaturally or deterministically manipulate circumstances for one’s benefit.  The ancient Romans attributed their god, “Fortuna” with the ability to change the probabilities of one’s life.  Irish culture makes a lot of use of the “luck of the Irish,” a tradition that goes back to 15th century pagan worship that originated in the area of the Netherlands.  We might refer to this god as “lady luck.”  When we flip a coin, the probabilities are equal that it will fall “heads-up” or “tails-up.”  Pagan worship enters the probability equation when we call upon “lady luck” or any other mythical entity to change the odds.  Most pagan religions today operate in a similar fashion. 

Adherents will often burn incense, chant repeated prayers, or bring sacrifices to the temple to their deity with the expectation that doing so might change the probabilities of life in their favor.  Consequently, because of its powerlessness, the blessing “good luck” may not be the best to use when spoken by a person of faith.    

Ecclesiastes 9:1.  For all this I considered in my heart even to declare all this, that the righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God: no man knoweth either love or hatred by all that is before them.

We know that we are not in control of this universe, and our search for influences from pagan gods is simply ignorant and vain.  Solomon refers to the community around him as “under the sun,” openly declaring its allegiance to the world rather than to God.  Without knowing God, there is no context for any form of hope for the future.  The future is in the hand of God, and is entirely subject to His sovereignty.  Solomon states that all of the works of man, even those of people of faith, are in the “hand” of God.  Solomon is stating that God is real, interacts with mankind, and unlike the mythical pagan gods, does have the ability to shape events.  If one is to seek the influence of a greater power in their lives, the only one who may be sought is God, and because of his “hand” He can and does respond.  We have no idea of the future love or hate relationships that will impact our lives, but God (because of his timelessness) does know.

Ecclesiastes 9:2.  All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not: as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath.

The ancients were convinced that good things came to good people, and bad things came to bad people.  They believed that illness was a punishment for sin and wealth was a reward for righteousness.  Consequently, they were vexed by the same questions that people are today, for example, “why do good people suffer?”  They could clearly observe rich people who were wicked, and the suffering of people who they considered innocent or righteous.  Such a system of beliefs has no room to understand the death of a child.  Theirs was a very complex system of performance-based acceptance and reward that was further complicated by the application of the supposed personalities and behaviors of their pagan Gods.

Solomon holds to quite a different perspective.  Solomon states that whether one is righteous, wicked, good, clean, unclean, one who sacrifices or one who does not, whether one is a sinner, etc: all are subject to the same vagaries of life.  Each are subject to the same set of probabilities that they will face any manner of disaster, illness, or blessing in the coming days of their lives.  Their belief in pagan gods will not alter those events except through the decisions they make themselves.  Solomon holds that, simply because the pagan gods do not exist, the gods will not and can not reward them for righteousness or punish them for sin. 

We do find a great deal of evidence of the LORD working in the lives of people through their experiences of grief as well as their experiences of celebration.  When a natural disaster strikes, all people are impacted by the disaster without any regard of their status as “righteous” or “wicked.”  The sun shines on all people, and the rain falls on the just and the unjust.[2]  When pestilence invades a community it does not discriminate based upon one’s reputation.

Ecclesiastes 9:3.  This is an evil among all things that are done under the sun, that there is one event unto all: yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead.

Solomon observes a madness in the hearts of the people around them: a madness that is driven by their ignorance of the One True God and their vain beliefs in false myths and traditions that lead them into all manner of powerless and degenerate behavior.  By continuing in this vain behavior the only reward that they will find is eternal death.  Yet, their frenetic lives are like a disturbed ant hill with its ants running in every direction, confused as to their mission or purpose, and entirely ignorant of the reason for their frenzy.  As hard as they work, they are not accomplishing anything that will save them from eternal separation from God.  The people do not understand that the time to turn to God in faith is now.

Ecclesiastes 9:4-5.  For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.

As wicked as this world has become, and even with the seeming lack of faith around him, Solomon still expresses hope that people will turn to God in faith.  Solomon uses a metaphor that would get the attention of his readers.  When considering the animals around them, the god would receive the least respect, and the lion ghe greatest.  There would be no context for the people to consider any way a dog could be in a better state than a lion.  Using this comparison, Solomon states that a decision for faith in God is available to all people, but that decision needs to be made before we face death, since the dead have no means to repent and turn to God.  The whole of scripture clearly describes the transition of death as one where judgment falls immediately.  There is no biblical basis for a purgatory, or a place of waiting before entering eternity.  The judgment is defined by where we will find ourselves when we pass from this earth, either with the LORD for eternity for those who have placed their trust in Him, or a separation from Him for eternity for those who have desired it in their hearts.  There is no opportunity for repentance once one has died.

Ecclesiastes 9:6.  Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.

When people who have not trusted in the LORD die, not only are they unable to take any of the fruit of their labors with them into eternity, but every part of their soul perishes also.  This is described in Revelation 20 as one’s being cast into the lake of fire with satan and his minions.  There is nothing they can do from the grave to affect anything in this world.  All is lost.

Ecclesiastes 9:7-9.  Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works. 8Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment. 9Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.  10Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

Still referring to the life experience of the lost, Solomon has some advice for those who will take their rejection of God’s offer of grace to the grave:  enjoy your life now, because this is all you will get.  One might be able to visualize the frenetic life experienced by those who are engaged in all manner of activities in their search for truth, activities that bring them no closer to a relationship with God, and also serve to rob them of the joy of living.  False religions often place great demands on their adherents, demands that sap their time, their resources, and compromise their relationships, or opportunities for relationships with others.    

Solomon has been consistent in his opinion: “what’s the point?”  What is the point of such powerless sacrifice when nothing is gained by it?  The works that we do are all seen by God, so there is no need for hypocrisy.  There is no need for ascetic behavior that puts on a false-image of piety and grief when the LORD knows one’s heart.  We will benefit the most if we enjoy what we have. 

Solomon points out some of the areas in life where their joy has been taken from them through ascetic behavior and adherence to false religion, including first eating and drinking which in ancient times was the primary social activity that brought people together.  Keeping garments white is an allusion to a similar practice of false grief when one covers their clothes with ashes.  There is no point in doing so:  God knows your true heart.  Likewise, the references to ointment and marriage refer to common practices of false piety.  Solomon literally states, “God has given your wife to you (and you to her), so enjoy one another while you can.”

For that is your portion:  With no hope for an eternal relationship with the LORD, the only joy that is to be experienced is on this side of the grave.  One might recall the lyrics to a song sung by Peggy Lee, Bette Midler, and many others in the late 1960’s:

“Is that all there is, is that all there is?
If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing,
Let's break out the booze and have a ball,
If that's all there is.”[3]

Though based on a book written by Thomas Mann in 1896, the words are an existentialist lament right out of the book of Ecclesiastes.  If this is all there is to life and death, then we might as well enjoy the time now.  One can feel the hopelessness of the lost in this lament.  Solomon understood as he observed the lost community this same existentialist hopelessness that is the thread that is woven through the lost community. 

Ecclesiastes 9:11-12.  I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. 12For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.

Solomon returns to the context of this passage: the powerlessness of man’s godless pursuits.  The world seeks direction and purpose in all of the wrong places.  The world cultures formulate expectations for reward in this life by a formula that lacks the wisdom of God.  It would be thought that the race is always won by the fastest, but this is not always the case, and is not the case in the race for salvation.  The battle is not necessarily won by the strongest, and the battle that separates the lost from salvation cannot be won by any strength of man.  By calling upon their gods, they hope to change the circumstances of their lives for the better, but the truth is all are subject to the same set of probabilities.  The chances may be one in 100,000 that one would be struck by lightening, but that chance remains, regardless of their chants to their gods.  People die in accidents and fall victim to violence every day.  Prayers to their gods have no bearing on these events.  No person is guaranteed to still be living tomorrow, and a life apart from a relationship with God has no hope. 

Ecclesiastes 9:13-16.  This wisdom have I seen also under the sun, and it seemed great unto me: 14There was a little city, and few men within it; and there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it: 15Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man. 16Then said I, Wisdom is better than strength: nevertheless the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard.

Solomon draws an illustration that may come from an actual historical event.  As much as the world has a finite set of expectations, it is typical that events transpire in ways that do not fit that set, and when such events happen, they are rejected by the ignorant and unwise.  The example is of a very small city that is besieged by a vast army.  Man’s expectation is that a great battle would be necessary to save the city or a great savior would arise who would lead the defendants to victory.  However, in this example, something quite different transpires:  the application of the (godly) wisdom of a poor and insignificant man results in the salvation of the city.  The ignorant and prideful people cannot accept the concept of an insignificant person saving them, so they refuse to acknowledge it.  Because the wisdom of this poor man did not fit their expectations, the man and his wisdom are both rejected.  The people are blinded to it by their world view, by their set of presuppositions that define what they perceive of their world and their existence. 

Ecclesiastes 9:17-18.  The words of wise men are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that ruleth among fools. 18Wisdom is better than weapons of war: but one sinner destroyeth much good.

It is this same lack of sight that keeps the ignorant in their state.  Whether their understanding is dimmed by their own pride, or by intervention of the prince of darkness, it is still sin that separates them from an understanding of God’s purpose.  This sin leaves them without the capacity to know God, or to know of the true power of the wisdom that He offers.  It is not only the power to save a city from a besieging army, it is also the power to save a soul from the prince of darkness who searches “to and fro” like a hungry lion seeking to determine who he can devour.[4]

Unfortunately, it takes little effort to squelch the voice of truth in a mob of fools.  Solomon finds himself immersed in this mob.  In many ways, people of faith find themselves in a similar situation today.  The world is becoming increasingly hostile to the Christian message.  There has been no time in contemporary history when faith in the LORD has been under attack as even western cultures which were once the defendant of the LORD are openly legislating away religious freedom, making it both difficult and even illegal to express faith views or practices outside of the church facility or one’s own home.  Christians all around the world are despised and persecuted by Muslim communities that seek to force their views on all others, using violence if necessary. 

The world that Solomon describes has not changed in the three thousand years since he preached this message.  Those who have rejected the gospel, rejected a relationship with the One True and Living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Martin Luther and John Wycliffe, the God of Jonathan Edwards and Billy Graham are more than lost in their pride and ignorance.  They have no hope beyond the grave.

These words should serve two purposes in our world today: (1) to inform the lost of their state of vanity, and (2) to encourage people of faith to be active in their efforts to grow in their relationship with the LORD and to be part of His work of salvation on the behalf of the lost.  When we observe the same vanity in this culture that Solomon observed in his, we can turn to the LORD in faith and obedience, turning from this world of hopeless vanity, and receive from Him a true and living hope in a life that is blessed, not only on this side of the grave, but also blessed by an eternity spent with Him.  Choose you this day whom you will serve.  As for me and my house… we will serve the LORD.[5]

[1] 1 Kings, Chapter 3.

[2] Matthew 5:44-45.

[3] Writer(s): Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller.  “Is That All There Is?”  Copyright: Sony/ATV Tunes LLC

[4] 1 Peter 5:8.

[5] Joshua 24:15.