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The Reality of Death, the Urgency of Life - a study of Ecclesiastes 9

Life is short. Make the most of it.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Ecclesiastes 9.

Solomon finally comes to the elephant in the room -- the inevitability of death. Death is the one common denominator that unites us all, rich or poor, righteous or wicked. Knowing that he will die, Solomon concludes that he may as well enjoy his short, toilsome, meaningless life. Blessedly, in Jesus Christ, Christians can find much more meaning in life.

But there is hope for whoever is joined with all the living, since a live dog is better than a dead lion. (Ecclesiastes 9:4)

Things to Think About: Advice to Your Younger Self

To make this opening topic more effective, I recommend two separate questions. "What is the biggest piece of advice you would give your 20-yr-old or 30-yr-old self?" and the corollary "What advice would you *not* give your younger self?"

I don't have to do internet research to offer some suggestions (although I was curious what other people think -- I'll give those responses at the very end).

"Advice I would give my younger self."

  • Appreciate my grandparents more -- they won't be around forever.

  • Appreciate my kids more -- they won't be young forever.

  • Learn Spanish (a living language, unlike Greek, Hebrew, Latin, or ancient German).

  • Be more consistent in Bible reading.

  • Lock the chicken coop more diligently.

  • Be more efficient with my time.

Stuff like that.

"Advice I would not give my younger self."

  • Dwell more on the things I don't have.

  • Be more bitter about the things that don't go my way.

  • Work longer hours.

  • Grumble more about the things I'm not happy about.

  • Be more selfish.

Stuff like that.

I believe that all of my answers are about priorities. The older I get, the more I move things into categories of "this is really important" and "this really isn't as important as I thought". Having had these discussions with many of you, I know you've done the same things. As we get older, our priorities change. And if "change" is too strong a word, perhaps we can say that they "crystallize" (become a lot clearer).

Unfortunately, for many Americans, this retrospective is couched in regret -- things I wish I had done differently. The problem with that, as Solomon would remind you, is that you can't change the past. Regret does nothing for you. (Incidentally, I believe that's why God uses the strongest possible terms to talk about forgiveness -- Micah 7:19, God throws our sin into the depths of the sea -- because the tendency toward regret is so strong.) Regret is futile.

Instead of looking back with regret, we should use the past as the learning experience that it can be. We accept God's forgiveness for our mistakes, and we make the commitment to change how we live today (and tomorrow). (To go with one of my grandpa's surprisingly favorite lines, "We should put our behind in our past." So, some Lion King wisdom . . .

Here's my attempt to redeem such a silly reference: whereas Timon and Poomba encouraged a priority of "hakuna matata" (it means no worries), the tension of the movie was realizing that some things had to be important. Did Simba learn the lesson?)

So with all of that in mind, end with this question:

"What things are important to you now that you didn't think were so important 10 or 20 years ago?"

Solomon is going to take us through his answers to those topics. Remember -- we don't have to agree with everything Solomon says. I've tried to establish that his perspective is missing a very key ingredient (the indwelling Holy Spirit), which tends towards pessimism and resignation. Solomon makes the right observations, but he draws the wrong conclusions.

Here's my nugget of wisdom from someone in his mid-40s, someone who has lived at least half of his life. The older I get, the more I appreciate the fact that God only gives us one life to live. (It is not my fault that a soap opera co-opted that name.) When we're younger, we feel like we have so much time and opportunity. But time and opportunity is not infinite. We need to take all of it so very seriously. You can "throw away" a day here or there, or "punt" on a decision here or there, but that has to be the exception, not the rule.

Let me transition out of this with Paul's much more Christian way of saying everything Solomon is trying to say.

15 Pay careful attention, then, to how you walk—not as unwise people but as wise— 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So don’t be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. 18 And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless living, but be filled by the Spirit: 19 speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music with your heart to the Lord, 20 giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another in the fear of Christ. (Ephesians 5)

Have these words in your head as you study the passage, and I believe you will appreciate it much more. You have one life to live -- how are you going to live it?


Where We Are in Ecclesiastes

Warning -- possible duplication of themes with next week. Lifeway is obviously focusing on the "facing death" part of these verses, but the most famous passage about death in Ecclesiastes (12:1-8) is what we will cover next week in the final lesson.

[Plug: next week (8/29) is the Sunday School Big Breakfast, and I invite all of the classes to stick around in the Fellowship Hall for a joint class that I will lead (because I love this passage). I'm going to put most of my effort into putting a bow on the whole book of Ecclesiastes, so it will be okay if you guys "steal my thunder" by leading some introspective discussions about death this week.]

Here's where we are:

  1. Everything seems to be futile (1:1-11)

  2. Wisdom is futile if you don't heed it (1:12-18)

  3. Pleasures are futile if you're looking for meaning in them (2:1-11)

  4. Folly is futile because ignorance is not bliss (2:12-16)

  5. Toil is futile if you think your accomplishments will last (2:17-26)

  6. Time is futile (fighting against time is futile) (3:1-22)

  7. Relationships are futile if you think they will solve your problems (4:1-12)

  8. Advancement is futile if you forget where you came from (4:13-16)

  9. Vows are futile is you don't plan to keep them (5:1-7)

  10. Riches are futile if you think money equals happiness (5:8-6:12)

  11. Wisdom is our defense (7:1-8:1)

  12. Government and religion is futile (8:2-17)

  13. Everyone will die/life is short (9:1-12)

  14. Wisdom is our defense (9:13-10:20)

  15. Diligence is our defense (11:1-6)

  16. Enjoy life while you can (11:7-12:8)

  17. Listen to the teacher! (12:9-14)

By this point in the book, Solomon has walked through all of life. He's thought about it all. Knowledge, money, power, pleasure, relationships, government, happiness -- all of it. And he ends up in the same place every time: we're all gonna die. It doesn't matter how rich, wise, powerful, beloved, or successful you are, every person who lives will die.

As it does for us, being faced with his own mortality forced Solomon to put everything he thought into a new perspective. Much of Ecclesiastes is his coming to grips with the shortness of life and thinking hard about the things that seem meaningless in retrospect.

For us, this passage is a call to refocus our priorities. Life is short. We should be more urgent . . . about some things. What are those things?


Part 1: Sober Truth (Ecclesiastes 9:1-3)

Indeed, I took all this to heart and explained it all: The righteous, the wise, and their works are in God’s hands. People don’t know whether to expect love or hate. Everything lies ahead of them. 2 Everything is the same for everyone: There is one fate for the righteous and the wicked, for the good and the bad, for the clean and the unclean, for the one who sacrifices and the one who does not sacrifice. As it is for the good, so also it is for the sinner; as it is for the one who takes an oath, so also for the one who fears an oath. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun: there is one fate for everyone. In addition, the hearts of people are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live; after that they go to the dead.

I quoted Shakespeare's Macbeth when we studied Isaiah 25, but it is much more appropriate for this week's passage -- a man so hardened by his own ambitions and actions that life seems empty. (Note: I'm not comparing Solomon to Macbeth, except in the pessimism of their perspectives.) Macbeth is enduring the siege of his castle, and the fear and pain of the people around him (and more immediately the death of his wife) no longer means anything to him. He has become numb to it all.

She should have died hereafter; There would have been a time for such a word. — To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury Signifying nothing. — Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17–28)

Wow, and wow. Shakespeare is better at English than I am.

I had no idea I was going to be getting so philosophical in this lesson, but that Macbeth quote makes me think of one of Nietzsche's most famous statements:

"He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you."

If line 1 sums up Macbeth, line 2 has a lot of Solomon in it. Nietzsche was a militant atheist, and he sought tirelessly to destroy Christian meaning. (And as this line foreshadowed, he destroyed himself in the process.) The "abyss" is nothingness -- as in a place of no morality, or no meaning, or (pointedly) no God. The longer you try to make sense out of such an idea, the more that "nothingness" will seep into you. I get the impression that Solomon, in his loneliest moments searching for unanswerable truths, was gazing into the abyss quite a lot.

Let's start with what he's saying. Verse 1. Solomon had poured his heart into understanding all of these truths and observations he had made over the course of his life. But as we've said, so much of life is inexplicable -- "good" things happening to "bad" people, and "bad" things happening to "good" people. Solomon always came back to one fundamental truth: no one knows what is going to happen to you tomorrow; all you can know is you are one day closer to your death. Thanks, Solomon, that's great.

But is it not true? Like I said before, Solomon was right in his observations but wrong in his interpretations.

Solomon has kind of taken on the mantle of Job here. Job knew that he had done nothing deserving of God's punishment, and yet it seemed like God was punishing him. That's where Solomon is coming from. From a limited human perspective, we have no way of knowing if a "bad" thing happens from (1) God's punishment, (2) God's discipline, (3) God's work in someone else's life, or (4) just happenstance of living in a broken world.

Does that make sense? Human wisdom can never answer "why". So to Solomon, when something calamitous happened, it may as well be God's proverbial lightning bolt. I.e., "good" things represent God's love, and "bad" things represent God's hate. Therefore, we don't know if we can expect "love or hate" from God tomorrow.

As Christians, though we can be sympathetic to Solomon's perspective, we utterly reject it. God will always love His children, and God will always hate sin. God is not mercurial or unpredictable. Solomon makes it sound as if God might wake up on the wrong side of the bed tomorrow. Nothing could be further from the truth. "Bad" things happening are not indicative of God's love or hate toward us.

(Note: I do not believe Solomon is talking about judgment after death. He has not indicated any sort of interest in the afterlife in these questions to this point. Rather, this is Solomon wondering how God will treat him until the day of his death.)

Every day we live is in God's hands. And we don't know what tomorrow holds. But we know that God always loves us.

Christians need to be sober and realistic about this. Bad things happen all over the world every day, often with very little warning, and they upend countless lives. People enduring those things need our comfort and encouragement. World Press Photo is one of many groups that releases a "year in review" collage. Their first quarter 2021 photo is powerful:

I don't know the stories behind each of those pictures, but I see people (and a world) in need. Let's take two examples:

  • Afghanistan. All of the women who have been investing in their education and careers are about to lose everything they've worked for. Through no fault of their own. And there's nothing they can do about it.

  • Greece. People living around Athens (who have had enough trouble just stabilizing their lives) are in the process of losing everything to wildfires. Whether a result of climate change or arson, these people had no warning.

(Christian leaders have rightly taken up the call that we have a responsibility to help the people of Afghanistan in their time of desperate need.)

I'm sure that two years ago, none of these people saw this happening. It's the same for us -- an automobile accident, a sudden illness, an economic downturn. We don't know what tomorrow holds. Solomon specifically addresses this in a few verses:

12 For certainly no one knows his time: like fish caught in a cruel net or like birds caught in a trap, so people are trapped in an evil time as it suddenly falls on them.

But we know Who holds tomorrow, and unlike Solomon, that should give every Christian hope and confidence.

Verse 2-3: again, the right observation, the wrong implication. Everyone dies. It doesn't matter who you are or what you've done. You will die (and then stand before God in judgment).

But Solomon stops there -- like Macbeth and Nietzsche. He stops with the awareness of death and the awareness of evil (remember our discussion last week on 7:17!). Well, of course your thoughts will travel a descent into madness! Once again, I turn to Paul to redeem Solomon's nihilistic line of thinking:

"10 There is no one righteous, not even one. (quoting last week's passage!) ... There is no one who does what is good, not even one. 13 Their throat is an open grave; they deceive with their tongues. ... 15 Their feet are swift to shed blood; ... 18 There is no fear of God before their eyes. ...
20 For no one will be justified in his sight by the works of the law, because the knowledge of sin comes through the law. 21 But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been revealed, attested by the Law and the Prophets. 22 The righteousness of God is through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe, since there is no distinction. 23 For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 25 God presented him as the mercy seat by his blood, through faith, to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his restraint God passed over the sins previously committed."

Yes -- our hearts are full of evil and madness. "But now" by the grace of God, forgiveness and righteousness is available to us in Jesus Christ. Even Solomon -- if he trusted that God loved him and had a plan for his sin -- could have his sins forgiven.

Madness in their hearts, indeed! (Note that the Lifeway material says that the greatest madness is failing to listen to God's warning about the punishment for sin and the availability of salvation. They're not wrong.) If we fail to speak to the reality of evil and madness in the world, non-Christians will have no choice but to conclude that our God must hate them. And they would be wrong.

What do you think is the "madness in the heart" for people today? Actual mental instability? Jealousy? Hatred?

If you were to face a major disruption like what Solomon describes, how would you handle it? (If you have faced one before, what would you like to do different if, God forbid, you had to face another one?)


Part 2: Seek Life (Ecclesiastes 9:4-6)

4 But there is hope for whoever is joined with all the living, since a live dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead don’t know anything. There is no longer a reward for them because the memory of them is forgotten. 6 Their love, their hate, and their envy have already disappeared, and there is no longer a portion for them in all that is done under the sun.

I'm going to speed things up because I think the point has been made. (And the Lifeway materials provide plenty of good commentary.)

You don't have to understand Solomon's pessimism to understand his conclusion that as long as someone is alive, there's hope for them. Yes, tomorrow could be terrible, but tomorrow could also be great. (And who knows but that today might be the day of salvation!)

Of course, Solomon isn't looking at it like that. He sees death as a void (abyss), "Sheol" as a place of darkness, neither good nor bad, just...nothing. Therefore, to be alive is better than to be dead.

In two very important respects, Solomon is correct: (1) death is an intrusion into the life that God created for us, a consequence of human sin. Death is a taking away of God's great gift of life. And (2) death for those apart from Jesus is the greatest loss possible. Any day that a non-Christian can continue to live is another day they might repent and turn to Jesus.

But for us, for those who believe in Jesus, death is not a loss. In fact, death is gain! (Phil 1:21) If you want to be encouraged to this end, please read 1 Corinthians 15.

But let's go ahead and study these verses from Solomon's limited, human perspective. As I've said a bunch today, he's not entirely wrong. People live once. (And when we die, we face judgment. Heb 9:27)

This is such a great perspective for that topic I suggested earlier about "advice to your younger self" -- what are you going to take with you when you die? what are you going to leave behind? Your jealousy, your bitterness, your anger, your promises, your religious sacrifices, what's going to happen to all of those when you die? Nothing. They will cease to exist when you leave this earth.

So how important are they really?

In the final section, we will see how Solomon tries to cope with this realization. But for now, camp out on this very important question: what do you leave behind?

I'm sure you've had this discussion before. Is your goal to leave behind money, or possessions, or houses? Or how about ideas, or character, or change?

What we leave behind is our legacy. We have the ability to shape that legacy while we live. But after we die, other people shape our legacy. What kind of legacy are you actively leaving? And what are you doing to help those who come after you to shape your legacy the way you hope it to be shaped?

I am certain that your older self would tell your younger self not to wait another day to think about your legacy. And that doesn't matter how old you are today.


Part 3: Enjoy (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10)

7 Go, eat your bread with pleasure, and drink your wine with a cheerful heart, for God has already accepted your works. 8 Let your clothes be white all the time, and never let oil be lacking on your head. 9 Enjoy life with the wife you love all the days of your fleeting life, which has been given to you under the sun, all your fleeting days. For that is your portion in life and in your struggle under the sun. 10 Whatever your hands find to do, do with all your strength, because there is no work, planning, knowledge, or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.

Solomon comes to the best conclusion we could hope for him. (But even then, he throws in some real jabs of hopelessness.)

Let's celebrate the good advice he gives us:

  • Verse 7 -- enjoy the fruit of your labor. Bread and wine were the staples of the region (no coincidence that Jesus chose bread and wine for the Lord's Supper), and most of the people were involved in agriculture in some way. One way or another, bread and wine is what they got from their labor, so they may as well enjoy it.

  • Verse 8 -- take pride in your appearance. I'm sure there's a better way to say this, but he's basically saying "don't look like you're in mourning". I think of the "pandemic sweatpants" -- people telling stories that the worse they dressed, the worse they produced for work. What else could we say here: "seize the day"?

  • Verse 9 -- enjoy life, particularly, enjoy life with your wife. Solomon lived in a rather sexist culture, and he had hundreds of "wives", so I don't know if this advice is progressive or pejorative. Either way, he's not actually wrong.

And then he falls off the cliff. He just can't help it. The rest of this passage actually makes me giggle, it's so predictably pessimistic.

"Fleeting" is the best understanding of the word often translated "meaningless" (remember we talked about this the first week -- hebel has a range of meanings): "Enjoy life with your wife the short time you have it, because that's all you're going to get in this short life. That, and struggle. You may as well work hard today because it will all be gone when you die."

I'm just really glad Solomon wasn't my youth Sunday School teacher.

Blessedly, God gives us another perspective on life and death. In Revelation 14, he speaks specifically about people who die in the great conflict at the end of all things, but I believe it applies just as well to Christians today (see 1 Cor. 3:12).

13 Then I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “so they will rest from their labors, since their works follow them.”

That's the true picture of how God sees us and our lives.

You only have one life to live. You should make the most of it.

If you haven't already covered this topic, make sure you at least end with it: what is a life well-lived? What does it mean to "make the most out of life"? Make sure your group comes around to this one basic truth: our lives are not really ours at all -- we must live to glorify God. So, what kind of eternal impact are you striving to make?


Closing Thoughts: Advice Other People Would Give to Their Younger Selves

There are scientific surveys out there on this topic. I found one from some Clemson psychologists that looks pretty comprehensive.

I was shocked at how "practical" the responses were. Things like "save more money" or "don't marry that person" or "travel more".

To be honest, thinking as an armchair psychologist, the practical advice probably points to a much more fundamental issue, a personal priority that the person didn't appreciate until later in life. This goes along with the question I suggested at the top, "What things are important to you now that weren't important to you 10 or 20 years ago?"

The article linked above also connects with a series of studies related to "things people regret the most". Those studies come back to the same basic categories (listed from most common to least common):

  • Education (wish I had studied harder; different major)

  • Career (wish I had worked harder; taken different job)

  • Romance (wish I had treated so-and-so differently)

  • Parenting (wish I had done such-and-such differently)

  • Self (wish I had been more true to myself)

  • Leisure (wish I had had more fun)

  • Finance (wish I had saved more)

  • Family (wish I had paid more attention)

  • Health (wish I had taken better care of myself)

  • Friends (wish I had kept up better)

  • Spirituality (wish I had paid better attention)

  • Community (wish I had been more involved)

For me, a startling reveal is how few people have regrets about their spirituality (fewer than 2%). Because I have never met a Christian who has said "I'm completely satisfied with my relationship with God", this leads me to believe that most people don't care that much about their spiritual life.

If we could conduct this same survey after death, I imagine that the results would come back rather different, don't you?


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