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One Fate for All Men: Death
After many observations the Preacher comes with a declaration about something he is certain of (Ecclesiastes 9:1). He begins the declaration of that certainty with “for”. It is not only an intellectual certainty, but also something he has taken to his heart, it is an inner conviction. He declares it to his audience, among whom we are, what he has taken to heart, that they may profit from it.
He has seen “that righteous men, wise men, and their deeds are in the hand of God”. “Are in the hand of God” means that God disposes of it, that everything is under His control, that everything is under His authority and care (Job 12:10; Psalms 31:15; Proverbs 21:1). That includes both the persons and their acts. It does not only apply to the unrighteous and fools, but also to the righteous and the wise. Also the latter ones must be very aware of the fact that they cannot direct their lives by themselves, but that they are totally dependent on God.
For believers it is encouraging to know that they and their works are in the hand of God (Deuteronomy 33:3; Isaiah 62:3; John 10:28). It means that they are His property and that no one can rob them from Him. The works that they are allowed to do are also in His hand. He prepared them beforehand, so that they would walk in them (Ephesians 2:10).
David, the father of the Preacher, has also talked about the hand of God. He does that when he is confronted with God’s irrevocable judgment over the people of Israel, due to his sin of the census of the people. He could choose out of three punishments and he chooses to fall into the hand of God: “Let us now fall into the hand of the LORD for his mercies are great, but do not let me fall into the hand of man” (2 Samuel 24:14).
The first verse that speaks about enjoying in this book, speaks about “the hand of God” as the source for man to enjoy eating, drinking and laboring (Ecclesiastes 2:24). Men cannot exercise total control over their circumstances, for they are not sovereign. Only God is. The righteous or the wise ought to acknowledge His government as servants of God and just as David they must rest in His mercy, even when they are confronted with the end of life ‘under the sun’, which is death.
Also for “love” and “hatred” it applies that man has no control over them. These human emotions are the two extremes of man’s feelings. Love and hatred are not the result of the human will, for man has no right of self-determination on his emotional life. He can intend to love, but still suddenly hatred can arise. Or emotions of love can diminish and after a course of time turn to hatred, as the circumstances change. He does not know in advance whether he will love or hate.
While Ecclesiastes 9:1 says that man does not know anything of what awaits him, there is something in the future of which he does know that will happen to him. The Preacher says: “It is the same for all” (Ecclesiastes 9:2). The following verse makes clear that he means death.
The series of five contrasts he then lists, strongly expresses that it is something that strikes all men, without distinction, no matter what they are and how they behave; all will, without exception, die once. In the series, the righteous men are first mentioned and then the wicked.
A. “The righteous” is the man who takes into account what is due to God and men;
B. “the wicked” does not take anyone into account.
These two are the main groups in which mankind can be divided. In the following contrast we see the characteristics of both groups, by which they can be identified.
1a. “The good, … the clean” live in purity in the sight of God, apart from the world and its lusts;
1b. “the unclean” lives according to the corruption of his sinful nature and lives in sin.
Here it is about the nature of the life that one lives, its appearance.
2a. “The man who offers a sacrifice” acknowledges that he can only be in relation with God through a sacrifice, the sacrifice of Christ, and he worships Him; he brings Him spiritual sacrifices;
2b. “the one who does not sacrifice”, lives in his own righteousness.
Here it is about the basis of life, on which it is based.
3a. “The good man” responds to God’s goal with his life;
3b. “the sinner” is missing the goal that God has with his life. Here it is about the goal of life, what it focuses on.
4a. “The swearer” has nothing to hide and can declare that he is innocent;
4b. “is the one who is afraid to swear” has something on his conscience.
Here it is about the words, whether they are true. That is most evident in a testimony, in a statement to be made under oath. This is the formal oath for the government, that represents God.
This equation of people who fear God with those who do not, seems to be in conflict with what the Preacher has said in Ecclesiastes 8 (Ecclesiastes 8:10; Ecclesiastes 8:14). Of course that is not the case. There he pointed to the disparity and disproportion in the fate of the righteous compared to that of the wicked in the light of their existence on earth. This time he points to death, which is equally inescapable for all. Job came to the same conclusion: “It is all one thing; Therefore I say, He destroys the blameless and the wicked” (Job 9:22).
In many cases, the same happens to both the righteous and the wicked, and we see things that apply to both of them. They both know hardships and sorrow, sickness and old age. The righteous Abraham was rich, as was also the wicked Haman (Genesis 13:2; Esther 5:11). The wicked Ahab was killed in the fight, as was also the God fearing Josiah (1 Kings 22:34; 2 Kings 23:29). People can speak well of a righteous man (Matthew 5:16), but that can also be done of a wicked man (Luke 6:26). In their lives on earth, the righteous are not more favored and the wicked not more punished.
The conclusion of Ecclesiastes 9:2 that “it is the same for all”, is repeated in Ecclesiastes 9:3. Only, the Preacher adds to it that “this is an evil in all that is done under the sun”. He calls death ‘an evil’. What he then says, makes clear that he does not pronounce an accusation to the existence of death. He directly connects to it that “the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil”.
There is a direct relation between the evil of death and the evil which the hearts of the sons of men are full of. The heart represents that what characterized the whole inner man. The entire life of the sons of men is directed by and “is full of evil and insanity in their hearts throughout their lives”. A heart that is full of evil and insanity, cannot but result in a life full of sin.
The inevitable result is that the sons of men “afterwards … [go] to the dead”, for “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). This announcement is an abrupt end of the verse. That strengthens the thought that what the Preacher wants to represent, is the suddenness of death which can abruptly take its toll right in the middle of the life of man.
The tragedy of this observation is that the awareness of death does not lead the sinner to repent, but to enjoy life as much as he possibly can. He lives according to the principle: “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). Anyone who looks at everything only under the sun, claims that with death everything is ended, both for the righteous and the unrighteous.
Death may be the same for all, however, it is not so with the place where one opens his eyes: “Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom” (Luke 16:22-Isaiah :). One person enters the joy of the Lord, the other is bound by his hands and feet and thrown into the outer darkness (Matthew 25:21; Matthew 25:30).
The word “for” which Ecclesiastes 9:4 begins with, indicates that this verse directly connects to the previous one. With death, all hope for repentance is gone. However, “for whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope”. Such a person can still learn to know the meaning and purpose of life by the confession of sin and repentance to God. This is another observation of Solomon than in Ecclesiastes 4 (Ecclesiastes 4:2), without there being any contradiction. It is a supplement to that observation.
The living is compared to a dog, an animal that is very much despised in the East. Yet, that living dog is better off than the admired king of animals which is dead. The point of this picture is that a human being who is still alive, though so despised and small, is better off than the most powerful and significant human being who is dead.
It has been remarked that this is one of the best verses in the Bible that we can present to someone who is considering suicide. Life can be a terrible rut; relationships can be soured; there can be financial distress and one may feel that God is very far away. But as long as you breathe, there is hope that matters can turn around for the better. Relationships can be restored, illness can be cured and the work situation can improve. It never makes sense to rob yourself of life, and this verse gives an argument for that.
Ecclesiastes 9:5 gives the motive of what is said in Ecclesiastes 9:4, which we see from the word “for” wherewith the verse begins. That “the living know they will die” means that they are alive, for only the living “know” anything. As long as men know that they will die, there is still time to repent.
“The dead” do not know this, they “do not know anything”. There is no reward for their lives and people do not think about them anymore. God does not interfere with them anymore, He does not think about them anymore. He forgets them forever. What a terrible fate!
It is nonsensical to use this statement of the Preacher for the false doctrine of the so-called ‘soul sleep’, which teaches that the dead are in a kind of unconscious state. According to that doctrine, men do not have any awareness of feelings, of joy and of pain in the hereafter. However, God’s Word speaks clear language about this, as shown in the verses in Luke 16 which are quoted in Ecclesiastes 9:3 (Luke 16:22-Isaiah :).
The dead are not out of consciousness. If they have died in faith, they enjoy Christ; if they die without faith, they suffer unbearable pains in the place of pain. What they no longer know about, is the possibility to gain eternal life.
Except from not knowing anything, they neither have feelings of love, hate and envy anymore, which characterized their lives on earth (Ecclesiastes 9:6). These feelings are not in them anymore, but “have already perished”. Their bodies are dead, stiff and numb in the graves, awaiting their resurrection to receive their eternal judgment, which is the only thing they will get (Hebrews 10:27). The acceptable time (2 Corinthians 6:2) with the possibility to repent and receive eternal life, has passed for them forever.
Enjoy the Good and Work As Long as You Live
These verses contain advice. Life has only death as a perspective. Well, that is why the advice is, make of life what you can make of it. Do not despair and gloom, but go on your way and enjoy life. Be happy if you have bread to eat and enjoy your wine.
Bread and wine give strength (Genesis 14:18; Lamentations 2:12). You might as well remember that God grants it to you. He gives you the opportunity to enjoy it. It is all according to His plan, for He had already ordained it as a regulation for His creation. Therefore it is perfectly lawful for man to enjoy it.
As new testament believers, we know that God “has created food to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:3-Deuteronomy :). Moreover, we can rejoice in a living hope, even in the midst of trouble, because our hope is Christ in Whom we rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory (1 Peter 1:3-Ruth :).
The Preacher advises us to make sure that our “clothes are white all the time” (Ecclesiastes 9:8). White clothes seem especially to refer to purity (Revelation 3:4-Deuteronomy :; Revelation 3:18). A life in purity also helps to ensure us that the joy in eating the bread and drinking the wine will not be disturbed. The first characteristic of wisdom which is from above, is purity (James 3:17). Impurity corrupts the real joy.
In addition, “let not oil be lacking” on our head. Oil is an ointment, which prevents dehydration, it keeps the skin smooth and spreads a sweet odor. Isaiah speaks about “the oil of gladness instead of mourning” (Isaiah 61:3). He who sees life as a gift from God and enjoys it as such, will radiate that. The wearing of white clothes and oil on the head are the contrary of black clothes and ashes on the head, which are an expression of mourning.
In a spiritual sense it means that the believer leads a life in which there is no room for the defilement of sin (2 Corinthians 7:1). In addition to that, our life will spread a pleasant smell, as oil does. Oil is a picture of the Holy Spirit (1 John 2:20; 1 John 2:27). If He can work in our lives, it will be noticed by our environment. People will find it pleasant to get in touch with us.
The third advice refers to the marital relationship (Ecclesiastes 9:9). Also marriage is a matter that makes life pleasant and gives strength in a life that is full of frustration. Marriage is a gift from God and may be enjoyed as such, but exclusively “with the woman you love”. Never should life be enjoyed with a woman other than one’s own wife. Only towards her there can be talk of love. Love which is considered towards another woman is not enjoying love, but satisfying one’s sinful lusts.
Of all advices that are given in Ecclesiastes 9:7-1 Samuel : to enjoy life, it must be said that its enjoyment is limited to the “fleeting days” of life on earth. “This is your reward” indicates that it is a gift from God and that it is the best part of all earthly pleasures that makes one’s “toil” in which he has “labored under the sun” somewhat bearable.
The addition “in life” implies the suggestion that man should look further than the earthly life and seek a better part in a future life. Marriage is an earthly pleasure that makes the labor with which one labors “under the sun” at least somewhat meaningful, no matter how temporary this pleasure may be.
After eating and drinking (Ecclesiastes 9:7), purity and joy (Ecclesiastes 9:8) and a good marriage (Ecclesiastes 9:9), the exhortation comes in Ecclesiastes 9:10 that we do our daily activities with all our might. “Whatever your hand finds to do”, not only means ‘do whatever you by accident find to do’, but also ‘do whatever is possible to work, and seize every chance you get to use all your might’. This must happen “with all your might”, means ‘with everything that lies within your power’, with the use of all capacities (cf. Judges 9:33; 1 Samuel 10:7).
Death makes an end to all searching and all labor with all our might on earth. When death enters in a person’s life, “no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom” can be expected from him anymore. Every form of labor, whether it is handiwork or thinking, has ceased, forever. In the grave, where man goes, he lies motionless, lifeless.
For us, the exhortation is that we always will be abounding in the work of the Lord, just because we know that there will be a resurrection where He will reward the results of the work that we have done for Him. Therefore it says that our “toil is not [in] vain in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58). ‘In vain’ has the meaning of ‘empty’, which means without result. That is exactly contrary to the conclusion of the Preacher, which in itself is right, because he only makes observations under the sun and passes on the results
Because we know that there will be a resurrection, we shall work as long as it is day (John 9:4). There comes a time that it will not be possible anymore, namely when we lie in the grave. Therefore we need to make the most of our time (Ephesians 5:16; Colossians 4:5) and not grow weary in doing good (Galatians 6:9-2 Samuel :).
Time and Chance Overtake All Men
Whoever, like the Preacher, is a good observer of all that happens “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:11), notices that not all things meet the expectations of man. It is often so indeed, that “the race is to the swift”, however, it can just happen that they lose the race, for example due to an obstacle on the road or a sudden muscle cramp. Speed is not always the guarantee that one escapes danger. Water can rise so fast that the fastest runner loses the race and drowns.
The same goes for “the battle warriors”. They too cannot claim the victory in advance, for they can suddenly be defeated. The young David who defeats Goliath, the giant who was considered undefeatable, is a clear example of this (1 Samuel 17:47; Psalms 33:16-Esther :; Jeremiah 46:6). “The wise”, who always know how to find “bread” may sometimes lack bread. They may be smart in doing business, but sometimes there is someone smarter and then they suffer loss and cannot buy bread.
“The discerning” are not always the wealthiest ones. He who knows about money matters and has therefore acquired wealth, may see his wealth disappear due to a miscalculation. “The men of ability” are the ones who have knowledge and the ability of how to make good use of it. Others look up to them because of their ability. They are in favor of them or in high regard. But when they make a major mistake, they lose all favor.
All these examples, which every sober minded man recognizes, should make clear to the same sober minded man that he has no control over his own life. We see that the fate of man is not dependent on his own capabilities and effort, but also on unexpected circumstances of prosperity and misfortune.
God reigns over what people do and do not do. In His wise counsel He gives victory to the slow, the weak, the simple, the less gifted and the ignorant. He works exactly the other way than man. With Him it is so, that whoever believes shall not make haste (Isaiah 28:16, Darby Translation) and that His power is perfected in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). He exalts the lowly and brings low the powerful (1 Samuel 2:7-Ruth :).
“Time and chance” determine the success of the swift, the warriors, the wise, the discerning and the men of ability. We do not have ‘time’ in our hand and it puts a limit to what we do and what we do not do. That should take away our self-confidence. ‘Chance’ is the unexpected event which puts an abrupt end to all plans, despite all the preparations that have been done in detail and an assessment of all conceivable risks. That the considered unsinkable Titanic did sink, is irrefutable proof of that. All these events are the observation under the sun. The believer, however, knows that everything that happens to him, is governed by God.
The word “moreover” with which Ecclesiastes 9:12 begins, indicates that now the motives follow from the statement made in the preceding verse. The expectations that man has in certain cases, can suddenly go to shreds, because he is completely in the dark about the future. He knows nothing about it. The times in a man’s life are unpredictable, unavoidable and sudden. An unexpected and unavoidable setback destroys all expectations and makes a set goal impossible to achieve.
Here, Solomon compares man again with the animals (Ecclesiastes 3:19). He is as mortal and unfamiliar with the day of his death, the fate that strikes him, as the animals. Man also mocks this word by taking his end in his own hand to determine the time of his death himself by taking a pill or receiving a shot. It proves his total alienation from God.
The Wisdom of the Poor Man Is Despised
The Ecclesiastes 9:13-Ezra : give an illustration of what Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 9:11, that it is not the warrior who wins the battle. It is also a proof of the fact that man does not want the wisdom of God, for he considers it as something pitiful. Solomon has seen that wisdom and it impressed him (Ecclesiastes 9:13). It is about the wisdom of God. That wisdom can both be not heeded (Ecclesiastes 9:14-Nehemiah :) and destroyed (Ecclesiastes 9:17-Job :).
We can apply this illustration as follows. “A great king” represents Satan. In the “small city” we can see a picture of the world, which is just a small dot in the universe and the number of people living there compared to the countless angels is very small. The “poor, wise man” is a picture of the Lord Jesus (2 Corinthians 8:9; 1 Corinthians 1:30).
The salvation of the world is accomplished by Him. He will claim His right at a time appointed by God. The salvation has been accomplished, but anyone who wants to participate in it, must repent. He refuses to do that, for he does not want to have anything to do with a salvation by an insignificant Person, Someone without titles and without prestige (Isaiah 53:1-Leviticus :; John 7:14-Ezra :). They do not think about Him at all anymore. When we talk with people about the gospel, we notice that fewer and fewer people are interested in Him.
In Ecclesiastes 9:16 the Preacher draws the lesson from the example of the previous verses. He does not mention something that happens just once in a while, he points to something that is the order of the day. People refuse wisdom if it is not attached to prestige. That is why these words are not heard and not heeded. They have covered their ears for them (cf. Acts 7:54-Philemon :).
We see this most clearly when it comes to the cross of Christ. The word of the cross is despised, while it is the wisdom of God and also the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18; 1 Corinthians 1:21). People despise God’s wisdom because they do not want it, for it takes away all of their own importance.
The Ecclesiastes 9:17-Job : show that wisdom is precious and at the same time also vulnerable. The “words of the wise” (Ecclesiastes 9:17; Proverbs 1:6) are words that can make us wise and lead us to salvation. There is a condition attached to accepting the words of the wise. Quietness is needed to hear them and to meditate on them. We have those words in the Scripture. These are the words of the poor, wise Man, which is Christ. He is “the foolishness of God” which is wiser than men and “the weakness of God” which is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:25).
In contrast to the words of the wise is “the shouting of a ruler among fools”. The shouter impresses the fools. Fools do not listen, they lack the quietness for it. They go for rhetoric, they bow to the one who can say it well. We see that in politics.
Wisdom is better and stronger than any other weapon. Literal weapons do not help in the battle against death, the devil and demons. Also great scholarship does not offer prospect of victory. We see that in creation. The sinner that destroys much good is man that makes mistakes and in that way hinders wise measures. One stubborn act by one person can destroy an excellent plan. One man, Adam, has destroyed all the good of creation by one sin.
By the sin of one man, Achan, the whole people of Israel had sinned. This made it impossible to take further possession of the land of blessing. First the sin had to be removed. Then the people could continue to conquer the land (Joshua 7:11-2 Kings :). One sin, which has not been condemned in the church, leavens the whole (1 Corinthians 5:6).
Kingcomments on the Whole Bible © 2021 Author: G. de Koning. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of the author
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de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Ecclesiastes 9". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
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