Bible Commentary: Ecclesiastes 8:16-9:3

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Ecclesiastes 8:16-9:3

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We Can’t Just Go by What We See

We move now into the fourth and last major section of Ecclesiastes (8:16–12:14), which concerns “removing discouragement and applying God’s plan to the lives of believers” (Walter Kaiser, Ecclesiastes: Total Life, p. 92). Despite the problems of this life, we will be told that it’s better to be alive than dead (Ecclesiastes 9:4) and that it’s important to make good use of the time we have, enjoying life’s pleasures while exercising wisdom (9:5–12:7). And once again, we can look to the end of the section—in this case, of the whole book—to see what it is aiming toward. The conclusion, as we have already seen—having been pointed to several times previously—is to fear and obey God, being mindful of future judgment (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). So the enjoyment we are encouraged to have must be understood within that context and tempered accordingly.

The first subsection within this last part (8:16–9:10) tells us, in the words of Dr. Kaiser’s outline, that “the remaining mystery in this subject must not diminish human joy.” (It should be noted that his outline puts the end of this subsection in Ecclesiastes 9:9, whereas we are including the next verse, verse 10, though also considering it transitional to the next subsection.)

We start in our current reading with the beginning of the first subsection in this last major section. Here the dilemma of life ending in death for both the righteous and the wicked is again faced. It is, as always, hard to take—as is trying to reconcile life choices with life experiences generally.

The first two verses of this section, Ecclesiastes 8:16-17, remind us that the full scope of God’s plan on earth—what He is doing through bringing to pass or permitting all the various things that happen to people throughout the world—is beyond us, no matter how much we may know or understand. Solomon said as much earlier in the book, when he stated that “no one can find out the work God does from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Here it says that given “all the work of God…a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 8:17).

The exact wording of verses 16-17 is unclear. Where the NKJV has “even though one sees no sleep day or night,” other versions differ. Some translate the Hebrew here to mean the restlessness and constant activity of all people everywhere, day and night—considering that this is too much to take in, as it surely is. However, in the agrarian times in which this was written, most people were not up at all hours of the night. (The idea could possibly be that there are always people awake doing something somewhere, especially as it is always day somewhere on a round earth, but it seems unlikely that this was a familiar enough thought to Solomon’s immediate audience in ancient Israel.) Others see the reference to Solomon himself not getting sleep as he tried to make sense of all he observed in the world—either because he was up late in pursuing this or because thinking about it so much made him unable to sleep. That’s possible, as He previously lamented trying to grasp it all and found it far out of reach (Ecclesiastes 7:23-24). Still others think he is saying that he realized that anyone who would attempt this would lose out on sleep. Yet, perhaps most likely, it could be that he is saying that even if a person—even a man of wisdom—were able to go without sleep and devote all his time and energies to trying to grasp what God is doing through what happens with people, he still could not figure it out. In any case, whatever is exactly meant by the first part of the passage, the result is the same. No one can know God’s purposes in everything that happens.

Many things just can’t be known now. As the apostle Paul wrote: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out! ‘For who has known the mind of the LORD? Or who has become His counselor?’” (Romans 11:33-34). Yet God reveals what we need to know: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29; see also 1 Corinthians 2:4-16).

The next set of verses, in Ecclesiastes 9, continues the thought of not being able to make sense of everything in this life, as we will see.

In the first part of verse 1, Solomon says his pondering of the matter led him to declare “that the righteous and the wise and their works are in the hand of God.” Of course, all are in the hand of God in the sense that He has say over what happens to everyone, including the wicked. Of the unrepentant the Bible says that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). Yet in Ecclesiastes 9:1 the sense would seem to be positive, as the righteous and wise are specified and not the wicked—and being in God’s hand can mean being in God’s care and protection (Psalm 31:5; Psalm 95:7; John 10:28). But Solomon is about to throw in a big curve that fits with his opening contention of not being able to figure things out.

The last part of Ecclesiastes 9:1 says, “People [ha-adam, “the man” in a plural sense, mankind] know neither love nor hatred by anything they see before them.” What does this mean?

Some interpreters, looking ahead to the mention in verse 6 of the cessation of the love, hatred and envy of those who die, conclude that human emotions are in view in verse 1—with love and hate here perhaps denoting the full breadth of emotions (as opposite extremes can sometimes connote all points in between—the figure of speech called a merism or merismus, as noted in the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on Ecclesiastes 3:15). The idea is that people cannot tell from what is presently observable what life will yet bring in terms of what they will feel toward others or what others will feel toward them—this being a poetic way of saying that they have no idea what life holds in store just by looking at the way things are. This would fit the previous point made in Ecclesiastes 8:16-17—that what God is working out in everybody’s lives cannot be comprehended. It could also lead to what comes next in Ecclesiastes 9:2, where the righteous and wicked experience the same outcome (not just in ultimate death but in various matters)—as this would seem to be unexpected.

Others see a more direct reference at the end of verse 1 to the matter of the righteous and wicked meeting the same eventuality in verse 2. In this view, the love and hatred of verse 1 is that of God—tying back to mention of being in His hand just before. And love and hatred are understood to speak of God’s care and acceptance versus His rejection, like we see in Romans 9:13, where God says, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.” The point of the end of Ecclesiastes 9:1 would then be that you can’t tell whether God accepts or rejects people based on what they go through. As Adam Clarke’s Commentary notes on this verse, “We cannot judge from the occurrences which take place in life who are the objects of God’s love or displeasure.” This idea is certainly valid, as the rest of the Bible attests. It likewise accords with the preceding point of not being able to figure out what God is doing in Ecclesiastes 8:16-17. And it fits well with the next statement in Ecclesiastes 9:2 concerning the same thing befalling both the righteous and the wicked. People having prosperity does not of itself mean that God lovingly accepts and approves of them—nor does adversity mean that God rejects them or is judging them for evil. “All things come alike to all,” verse 2 says. Recall that this was what Job’s friends failed to understand in thinking that he must have been guilty of great evil to meet with such terrible suffering. And consider that Paul used his frequent immersion in peril as a sign of his being a true apostle (2 Corinthians 11:16-33), whereas others might wrongly see those troubles as evidence of God’s displeasure with him. Now, adversity could be a result of God’s chastening, and we ought to assess that in our personal circumstances, especially if we know we’re not doing as we should. But we shouldn't just assume that, especially with regard to others. Again, we don’t know all that God is working out and for what reasons (Isaiah 55:8-9). He has a long-term and all-encompassing yet detailed view, concerning both this life and a future resurrection, in His plans for all people.

Whether the love and hatred of verse 1 refer to the breadth of human experience to come being unknown or to God’s acceptance or rejection not being ascertainable from what happens, we are still left with the same big curve here in verse 2—that even though the righteous are in God’s hands, as verse 1 says, they meet with the same circumstances as the wicked, ultimately death. We earlier saw the matter of the righteous and wicked each receiving the outcome that should seemingly go to the other, which Solomon called vanity or frustration (Ecclesiastes 7:15; Ecclesiastes 8:14). The issue in chapter 9 is not a reversal of fortune as before but that both go through the same things. The “one event” or “one thing” (verses 2-3) happening to all “need not exclusively refer to death, although the passage goes on to that” (Eaton, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, note on verse 2). This is better read as “the same event” or “the same thing,” as denoting some given circumstance—and it befalls the righteous as well as the wicked. That is to say, the various things that happen to people in life happen to both the righteous and the wicked. Note again the beginning of verse 2 in the NKJV: “All things come alike to all.” Of course, this parity of outcomes ultimately includes death, and verse 3 ends with that. The ESV Archaeology Study Bible points out that “when drought, famine, plague, or war came to an ancient city, all its inhabitants—good and bad alike— suffered equally” (note on verses 1-3).

On the other hand, the outcomes for the righteous and wicked in various circumstances are not always the same. And Solomon is not saying that—or else his laments about the wicked faring better than the righteous at times would not make sense. And his recognition of the need for wisdom and righteousness—and the fact that these bring blessings—would likewise not make sense. The fact is, as Solomon well knew, God certainly does protect and deliver His people as He has promised to do—and often that means keeping us from certain harmful situations. We are encouraged to pray for God’s intervention. Yet He knows what is best. And He still often lets us go through what all the world goes through—and sometimes worse—as part of His overall care for us and others, even if it doesn’t seem that way. We must learn to trust that God knows what He’s doing. “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

The rest of Ecclesiastes 9:2 shows that the same thing ends up occurring despite the distinctions between the righteous and the unrighteous. Yet we should note that these groups are distinguished nevertheless. The righteous, those who are good and clean before God through repentance, offer sacrifices to Him—serving Him with their time and substance—while the wicked or unclean do not. The last distinction listed is between “he who takes an oath” and “he who fears an oath.” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary says, “The contrast is between a man who is ready to speak the truth on oath and the guilty person who refuses to be put on oath” (Wright, note on verses 2-4). Alternatively, the Preaching the Word commentary sees the difference here as between the righteous entering into a holy covenant or commitment with God while the unrighteous refuse to do so (Ryken, pp. 205-206). Consider that one group here is clearly better even though you couldn’t necessarily tell that from just what happens to them in this life.

Solomon then says in verse 3, “This is an evil in all that is done under the sun: that one thing happens to all.” Is he returning to the seeming problem with divine justice, even accusing God of evil for allowing things to be this way? We’ve already seen that Solomon realizes that it will ultimately be well for the righteous and not for the wicked (Ecclesiastes 8:12-13). Has he lost sight of that here? No. He recognizes that God has great reasons for allowing things to be as they are even if we cannot understand all those reasons. He also knows that God will eventually set things right. And He further knows that there are benefits to living righteously today, as already mentioned. With that in mind, a better way to understand the verse is to see the word “evil” here as referring not to moral evil on God’s part but to the situation being a bad thing to go through—a terrible thing to suffer, as an affliction. A “misery,” it has been translated (Tree of Life Version). Some think the verse is saying that what follows is the evil—the “one thing” that happens to all—death. It is of course true that death is our common enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26), and the end of the verse and the next few verses address the matter. But mention is first made of bad things in life well before death. So, again, the beginning of Ecclesiastes 9:3 is most likely saying that what has already been described—the common circumstances (plural) of the righteous and wicked—is an evil or hardship. Striving to serve God yet still going through the same things as the rest of the world who reject Him is hard to endure. And yet we must, as the whole of the book teaches.

The latter part of 9:3 magnifies the trial of life—showing life beset by the evil and madness of the hearts of men (the sons of ha-adam, the man or the human race as in verse 1) before then passing to death. Jeremiah 17:9 likewise calls the human heart “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” And there is a certain madness or insanity in being led around not by sound reason and wisdom but by wayward feelings. This has been the way of things since “through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Even the righteous must strive against their corrupted human nature. And then, as the wicked, they also die. Now God is by no means at fault in how things are. People have brought this condition on themselves, with God subjecting them to further frustration actually being for ultimate good. Of course, we know that death in this age is not the final end—as does Solomon. Yet it certainly does mark an end—the cessation of opportunity to act and interact in the here and now.

Thankfully, Solomon does not leave us on a down note here. The next verse (Ecclesiastes 9:4), which begins our next reading, starts with “But” and will tell us there is hope in being alive. And there is more encouragement to follow.

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