It’s Good to Be Alive—Make the Most of It
We continue here with the last major section’s first subsection (8:16–9:10) telling us that the remaining mystery in the outworking of this life must not diminish joy. Moving into the last past of this subsection (Ecclesiastes 9:4-10), some might think that with all life’s problems, and with doing right not leading to an easy ride, one might as well be dead. Recall that in Ecclesiastes 4:2, Solomon had praised those who no longer faced the world’s oppression because they were already dead—this representing either his past despair or a nuanced perspective of life without a comforter (see our commentary there for more on that).
But Solomon now tells us in Ecclesiastes 9:4 that there is advantage in being alive. Dr. Walter Kaiser writes: “Where there is life, there is hope. The actual translation of the verse is not as easy as the sense. The Hebrew and many ancient versions say, ‘What then is to be chosen? With all the living there is hope.’ There was, however, a Hebrew tradition of reading (called the Qere) this text that supposed that two letters ought to be transposed in the verb ‘to choose’ (yebuchar) to make it ‘to join’ (yechubbar), and thus the verse would read [like in the NKJV], ‘For whosoever is joined to all the living, he has hope.’…. The sense is not measurably different in either case. (Most commentators and versions have a slight preference for the latter reading)” (Ecclesiastes: Total Life, p. 97). The word “chosen” need not mean making a choice between remaining alive and allowing or causing one’s own death. It could simply mean, “What then is preferable—life or death?” The answer of course is life, for in life there can be hope (further explained in verse 5). Yet where a choice exists, we are to choose life, just as God had Moses tell the Israelites long before (see Deuteronomy 30:15-20).
The end of Ecclesiastes 9:4 strengthens the case with a proverb stating that it’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion. The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries volume on Ecclesiastes points out: “The lion, ‘mightiest of the beasts’ (Pr[overbs] 30:30), was admired in the ancient world. The dog, on the other hand, was [in Old Testament times regarded as] a despised scavenger (Ex[odus] 22:31; 1 Ki[ngs] 14:11), notorious for its uncleanness (Pr[overbs] 26:11)” (Eaton, note on Ecclesiastes 9:4). (See also 1 Samuel 17:43; 1 Samuel 24:14; 2 Samuel 3:8; 2 Samuel 9:8; 2 Samuel 16:9.) Thus it’s better to be a disdained lowly wretch who’s alive rather than a person who was powerful and majestic but is now dead. The proverb at the end of Ecclesiastes 9:4 is a reminder that power and prestige in this world are temporary, yet it also presents us with the fact that life is worth living—that it’s better to be alive than dead, which means that this life is not as bleak as it may seem. In life there is cause for hope, as just stated in the first part of verse 4.
“But,” as The New American Commentary states regarding verse 5, “the reason the Teacher puts forward for choosing life is another surprise: because the living know they will die!” (Garrett, note on Ecclesiastes 9:3-6, emphasis added). Yet how is awareness of coming death a basis for hope? “The explanation is that the living may yet reckon with the reality of death and in so doing embrace the joy life has to offer” (same note). Life affords opportunity. Tommy Nelson writes in A Life Well Lived: “Solomon is saying don’t give up hope and give in to despair. Just because life is vanity does not mean it is hopeless. Life is a common blessing that God has bestowed on men. Life is better than death because at least when you’re alive, you know that one day you’re going to die, so you can change your life and make something out of it” (p. 146). Kaiser elaborates: “Solomon’s point is plain: While men are still alive there is hope—hope of preparation for meeting God, hope of living significantly, hope of doing something to the glory of God before all men personally face Him as Ecclesiastes 12:14 warns, when man will give a detailed accounting of his life to determine if it has been lived in a manner well-pleasing to God” (p. 97). So the discussion of death here is not just a restatement of the human dilemma, but a good reminder of our mortality. Contemplating the fact that this physical life will end can be very beneficial, as already presented in the beginning of chapter 7. On the other hand, as The New American Commentary further states, “no such possibility exists for those who have already died. Their time has passed” (note on Ecclesiastes 9:3- 6)—at least in terms of this life.
Verse 5 further tells us that the living at least have some awareness, while “the dead know nothing,” having no awareness at all. This is reaffirmed in verse 10: “…for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going.” Most Bible commentators, errantly holding to belief in an immortal soul and conscious existence apart from the body, claim that these verses do not mean what they clearly say. For instance, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary states: “The Teacher is not teaching soul sleep here, that the dead have no consciousness. Rather his emphasis is on the contrast between the carnal [fleshly or physical] knowledge of the living and the dead… [The dead] clearly have not the capacities that they once had on earth” (Wright, note on verses 5-6). The same commentary further states that “the dead at that time [when Ecclesiastes was written] did not know what future they could expect”—being in a supposed underworld awaiting Christ’s resurrection to find out what awaited them. Yet Jesus said that Abraham actually looked forward to His day, and we’re later told that this father of the faithful was aware of the future reward (John 8:56; Hebrews 11:8-10). So did he forget this while in a supposed disembodied afterlife? That makes no sense.
Dr. Kaiser’s commentary says that Ecclesiastes 9:4-5 and verse 10 present “no denial of a future state”—which is true, as these verses allow for a future resurrection. But his commentary goes further in saying that there is no denial here “of personal, conscious presence with God immediately after death of the body” (p. 102). That is false. These verses very specifically deny this. What would be the point of saying the dead physical body knows nothing if the actual person is still alive and thinking as a disembodied soul? Wouldn’t that person, at least if among the righteous, be freed from burden and “in a better place”? And if the person is not righteous and will experience conscious afterlife in a hell of torment, why say there is no knowledge of anything? Why say this if the disembodied person actually will have awareness—either of bliss or agony? Some would argue that Solomon himself didn’t know about this, but they still treat his words as inspired—considering that God did not allow him to write anything wrong yet still concealed the truth of the matter from him. But his statements cannot be made to reasonably fit with their concept of an immediate conscious life after death in heaven or hell.
Some commentators take the words regarding the unconscious state of the dead in verses 5 and 10 at face value but conclude that they actually represent a wrong view. The Living Bible footnotes here, “These statements are Solomon’s discouraged opinion and do not reflect a knowledge of God’s truth on these points!” This is fallacious reasoning. How then could we trust anything else in the book? The fact is, death is compared to sleep in various passages of Scripture wherein God’s truth on these points is revealed—with the dead awaiting an awakening at the resurrection of the dead (see Isaiah 57:1-2; Daniel 12:2; Matthew 27:52; John 11:11-14; 1 Corinthians 15:6, 1 Corinthians 15:18, 1 Corinthians 15:20; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14). The dead in fact have no consciousness—like a person in a coma for months with no sense of the passage of time. The human spirit returns to God when a person dies (Ecclesiastes 12:7), but with no conscious awareness until that spirit is later placed in a new body at the resurrection. The human spirit imparts consciousness to the human brain but is not conscious of itself in the way many imagine an immortal soul being able to have disembodied awareness. Solomon states the truth—the dead know nothing. (To learn more, see our free study guides What Happens After Death? and Heaven & Hell: What Does the Bible Really Teach?)
Where Ecclesiastes 9:5 says of those who die that “the memory of them is forgotten,” this is often taken to mean that other people don’t remember them. But given their own emotions perishing in the next sentence in verse 6, the statement in verse 5 most likely means that those who have died are the ones who don’t remember anything—“they don’t even have their memories,” as The Living Bible renders this (while wrongly labeling it untrue). This goes right along with the dead knowing nothing. Psalm 146:4, as properly rendered in the King James Version, tells us, “His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.” Many render the word translated “thoughts” here as “plans”—again due to belief in an immortal soul. Concerning the perishing of feelings in the next verse in Ecclesiastes (Ecclesiastes 9:6), the word rendered “envy” could mean “zeal” (NASB) or “passions” generally (GNT). Love and hate and passions—the full gamut of emotions and drives—are brought to a halt by death. Again, the description here is of full cessation of consciousness. When a person dies, there is no more thinking or feeling.
So is that all there is? Some would claim that this passage argues against a future life after death— that it denies not only consciousness apart from the body but even a future resurrection. Yet the passage doesn’t rule out a resurrection beyond this age. The statement “they have no more reward” at the end of verse 5 should be understood in light of the wording at the end of verse 6: “Nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun.” The point is that there is no more reward or participation in this life under the sun—while God and man are separated in this age. Again, there is no denial here of the dead being raised in a future age in the light of God. Solomon already stated that it will be well for the righteous in the end, including those who have died (Ecclesiastes 8:12). That requires a future reward (see also Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). So the reward in Ecclesiastes 9:5 has to refer to what happens in this present life. Consider also that the fact of reward in this life means that this life is not all bad, as some would mischaracterize the message of Ecclesiastes. There is a good share for us now, and the next verses encourage us to receive it—something only those still living can do. (Of course that is still in light of the fact that there is future reward in another life yet to come—the ultimate hope that Christians rely on. As Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 15:19, “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.”)
In the verses that follow in Ecclesiastes 9, considering that there is some reward in this life, we come back to the book’s refrain about finding enjoyment in living—but here with strong exhortation and specific directives. “Verses 7-10 of this chapter offer the longest sequence of imperative [or command] verbs, the longest set of instruction, in the entire book of Ecclesiastes” (Limburg, p. 107). Verse 7 starts with “Go”—get moving, “be up and about” (Kaiser, p. 98). “What had previously been put as advice (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26; Ecclesiastes 3:12f., Ecclesiastes 3:22; Ecclesiastes 5:18-20) is now an urgent summons to action” (Tyndale, note on 9:7).
Given the reminder that this life will end, we should understand that the time to live joyfully is right now. Carpe diem, says a Latin proverb taken from the Roman poet Horace—“seize the day,” or, literally, “pluck the day,” as a ripe fruit. Some use this in the negative sense of just have a good time because there is no life beyond this one—the notion the apostle Paul decried in 1 Corinthians 15:32]. But Horace actually meant that we are to seize today because tomorrow is uncertain and we should not trust in plans made for later. That is very much in line with what Solomon has to say (and Solomon said it long before). Realizing the brevity of life and how quickly things can change in this world, there is great value in the present for what it offers now and for the opportunity it affords to prepare for the future. While we are alive, we should truly live as best we can.
We are told in verse 7 to eat joyfully and drink merrily “for God has already accepted your works.” What is this saying? It definitely doesn’t mean that God is fine with everything people might do—as the book and the rest of the Bible warn against wickedness facing divine judgment. Some therefore take it to mean that God is telling the righteous that they stand forgiven and accepted by Him, presumably due to their repentance and faith and striving to please Him, so they don’t need to worry about Him being indifferent or uncaring to them—as the preceding verses about the righteous and wicked experiencing the same thing could make it seem. The Tyndale commentary even states that “this almost Pauline touch is the nearest the Preacher came to a doctrine of justification by faith” (same note). However, this concept is unsubstantiated in the passage. The verse is most likely not speaking of the general spiritual standing of believers before God. The context and parallel with other occurrences of the refrain show the emphasis here to be on enjoying the good physical aspects of life that God has designed for all of us. The NIV renders the phrase in question, “God has already approved of what you do”—in terms of eating and drinking with joy. The sense is: Go enjoy things, for that is what God wants you to do. The Message paraphrases, “God takes pleasure in your pleasure.” The Preaching the Word commentary agrees: “Primarily the Preacher is saying that our eating and drinking enjoy the blessing of God. Life’s enjoyments are not guilty pleasures but godly pleasures—or at least they ought to be. A merry heart has God’s approval. It is part of his gracious will for our lives” (Ryken, p. 213).
But what of the terrible human condition just mentioned of evil and madness ending in death? We already saw in chapter 7 that fools pursue fun for escapism—that the wise are more serious. That’s certainly true. There is much to mourn over in this age. But we all still must try to enjoy ourselves when that’s appropriate, as it often is. Nelson writes: “Is Solomon telling us to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the tragic nature of life? Is he saying we should try to dull the pain with pleasure?... What is Solomon talking about? He’s saying the same thing he has already told us…. Enjoy life right now even though you got laid off yesterday. Spend some time with good friends. You don’t know why yesterday happened. You don’t know what tomorrow holds. Jesus said, ‘Tomorrow will care for itself’ (Matt[hew] 6:34). Right now, God will take care of you. And God approves of your enjoying life. That’s what the end of verse 7 means. Many Christians live as if it is a sin to enjoy life. But God created the world for us to enjoy” (pp. 146-147). He further points out that Eden, where God originally put man, is a name meaning “delight.” Again, that is what God wants for us.
Of course, enjoying pleasures in life is not the answer to life’s problems—though it is part of the answer. And it can even add to the problems if we are not careful. We must certainly be on guard in all that we do to this end, as the book later warns in Ecclesiastes 11:9, being wisely balanced in our approach.
The Preaching the Word commentary properly cautions that “there is also a deadly spiritual danger in the pursuit of pleasure. We may get so distracted by earthly pleasures that we lose our passion for God. How tempting it is to worship the gift and forget the Giver!... Some Christians deal with this danger by self-denial…. Admittedly, there may be some pleasures that some people should deny [and there are times we should deny ourselves to give time to prayer and fasting]…. In general, though, this is not the approach that the Bible teaches us to take with the good things of life. What it tells us to do instead is to receive pleasure with gratitude, returning our thanks to God. One of the best ways for us to keep the good things in life in their proper perspective is to praise the Giver for all of his gifts. ‘Everything created by God is good,’ the Scripture says [in a different context, though with words applicable here], ‘and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving’ (1 Timothy 4:4)” (pp. 217-218).
Likewise, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 tells us, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” And we are to rejoice always in the Lord, Paul says (Philippians 4:4)—again, with thanksgiving (verse 6). So God wants us to enjoy life while constantly keeping Him in mind, living in accordance with His will, and giving Him thanks. Solomon doesn’t directly state the need to give thanks and praise to God in Ecclesiastes. But He likely didn’t need to, as well versed as he and the nation probably were in his father’s psalms, which gave such declaration. If he read Ecclesiastes aloud at a festival gathering, then it would probably have been accompanied by such psalms.
Considering the exhortations to enjoyment throughout Ecclesiastes and in these other passages, we should recognize that Jesus Himself applied the principle and enjoyed the good life in a balanced way while often giving thanks. In fact, He did so to the point of eliciting derision from critics, Jesus stating: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is justified by her children” (Matthew 11:19). Of course, Jesus did not overindulge or compromise Himself, as accused, but He clearly did enjoy fine meals and wine and appropriate socializing—as we all should in gratitude and moderation.
Let’s note the particulars of what we’re told to enjoy in the refrain of Ecclesiastes 9. Verse 7 again tells us to “eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart.” And verse 8 says, “Let your garments always be white, and let your head lack no oil.” As Kaiser notes: “Wine and bread, the staff of life, are frequently representative in Scripture of that which God gives to comfort and cheer us (Gen[esis] 14:18; [Judges 19:19;] 1 Sam[uel] 16:20; 1 Samuel 25:18; Neh[emiah] 5:15; Eccles[iastes] 10:19; Lam[entations] 2:12). In fact, these are mentioned alongside oil as given to man by God in Psalm 104:15: “Wine that makes glad the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread which strengthens man’s heart.” The wine gladdening the heart refers to lightening the mood and promoting positive social interaction—in moderation. There is certainly no condoning of drunkenness here, which is denounced in the next chapter (Ecclesiastes 10:17). The eating and drinking together, as in past refrains, imply companionship— enjoying good fellowship with others.
Having your garments always white referred to wearing clean, comfortable and festive clothes. Light-colored clothing reflected the heat in the warm climate of the Middle East. But of course white clothes would easily show dirt and needed to be washed more frequently. And “because ordinary people could not maintain and perpetually clean their cool and pleasant white garments as could people of wealth and rank, they reserved such clothes for especially important or festive occasions. Accordingly white garments became emblems of joy and festivity” (Kaiser, p. 99). Note the Levites adorned in white linen when David had the Ark of the Covenant brought to Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 5:12). The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible comments: “Scholars have understood the color white to symbolize purity, festivity or elevated social status. In both Egypt (Story of Sinuhe) and Mesopotamia (Gilgamesh Epic), clean or bright garments conveyed a sense of well-being” (note on Ecclesiastes 9:8). The oil here is likewise representative of life’s luxuries. It made people more comfortable, removing the irritations of dry skin in a dry climate. It was also mixed with scents and used for perfuming—to not only look good but smell good. (We see perfumes mentioned in the parables of Ecclesiastes 7:1 and Ecclesiastes 10:1.) Anointing another with oil showed a bestowal of favor and welcome to that person.
Of course, anointing with oil also had a spiritual sense of God’s favor and investiture, though that does not seem to be the primary meaning in what Solomon is saying here. Nevertheless it could be part of the broader sense in the context of the whole of Scripture. In fact, the other physical blessings here all have spiritual parallels. White garments, being clean, signified spiritual purity or righteousness before God, as we see in Revelation (Revelation 3:4-5; Revelation 19:8). And eating and drinking can denote taking in of the spiritual nourishment God gives—as well as spiritual fellowship. Perhaps Ecclesiastes 9:8 could in that sense serve as a caution not unlike what we’ve been reading in the rest of the book: Eat and drink but “let your garments always be white” (that is, do so in a righteous manner), “and let your head lack no oil” (that is, do so directed by God’s Spirit, not all on your own). Still, that seems beyond what Solomon himself meant. Normal physical enjoyment is most likely what he intended in the immediate context, especially given what follows about enjoying life with one’s wife.
This next verse, Ecclesiastes 9:9, presents a lifetime with one’s wife in a very positive light—which helps to put Solomon’s earlier statement about not finding a good woman in Ecclesiastes 7:27-28 into fuller context. Failing to find a good woman had been his personal experience with his vast harem, but he still counseled that joy in marriage was attainable—one of God’s great blessings during this life. As he also wrote in Proverbs 18:22, “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the LORD.” And further positive affirmation and celebration of marital love is found in the Song of Solomon. It should be pointed out that some wrongly contend that Ecclesiastes 9:9 is not referring to marriage. The Tyndale commentary explains: “Because the term for wife here is simply ‘woman’ [that is, the Hebrew can be translated either way], and because the Heb[rew] lacks the article and could mean ‘a woman,’ it is thought by some…that the Preacher is urging sensuality without marriage. This neglects the background of Ecclesiastes in Genesis 1-11; also the style of Heb[rew] in Ecclesiastes…tends to omit the article where other writers would have it [and ‘wife whom you love’ could be understood as definite without the article]. It is, therefore, precarious to base too much upon its absence…. The companionship envisaged is life-long, not a casual liaison” (footnote on Ecclesiastes 9:9).
The wording may not seem quite so positive though, as the Preaching the Word commentary points out, telling husbands “to enjoy their wives ‘all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life’ (Ecclesiastes 9:9). This is hardly the kind of statement that a woman is hoping to find written on her anniversary card! The Preacher is no more sentimental about marriage than he is about anything else in life. But this does not make him a cynic. On the contrary, he is giving a serious view of life that makes room for joy but also faces up to the sober realities of life in a fallen world and the inevitable reality of death” (p. 215). Some see the vanity or frustration—the breath or vapor—in this verse as referring to life being fleeting or short. Yet it still seems likely to refer to the entire panoply of frustration this world presents that leads to the sudden finality of death, as in verse 3, with the directive to live joyfully with one’s spouse as a way to experience lifelong blessing in the midst of life’s troubles. Consider the seeming oxymoron of “live joyfully…all the days of your vain life.” Yet it makes sense if we recognize that every day, despite that day’s problems, we can still experience joys that marriage provides—and more so over the years, as long as we have life. And in fact, as should be encouraging to those who are not married, we can experience joys from many other God-given gifts each day and throughout life, as Solomon has just mentioned and as he will later reaffirm despite life’s vanity (see Ecclesiastes 11:8).
Interestingly, several commentaries point out that the directives to joyfully eat, drink, wear festive clothes, put on perfume oils and love one’s wife were found in other ancient sources—which makes sense when we consider that Solomon had an international empire and was a collector of wisdom. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible notes on Ecclesiastes 9:7-9: “These verses include some of the most remarkable parallels between a Scriptural text and other ancient Near Eastern texts found anywhere in the Bible. The ‘Song from the Tomb of King Intef,’ from the Egyptian Harpers’ Songs, confronts human mortality and offers the following advice: ‘Put myrrh on your head, / Dress in fine linen, / Anoint yourself with oils fit for a god!’ Another of the Harpers’ Songs, ‘Neferhotep I,’ has similar advice: ‘Take fine perfumes pleasing to your nostrils, with garlands, lotuses, and berries at your breast, with your sister, who is in your heart, happy at your side’ (‘sister’ here refers to one’s wife). Another strikingly similar text is in the Old Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic, where the hero laments over mortality to an ale-wife, and she gives him this advice: ‘When the gods created mankind, / For mankind they established death, / Life they kept for themselves. / You, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full, / Keep enjoying yourself, day and night! / Every day make merry, / Dance and play day and night! / Let your clothes be clean! / Let your head be washed, may you be bathed in water! / Gaze on the little one who holds your hand! / Let a wife enjoy your repeated embrace!’ Our three different sources—Babylonian, Egyptian and Israelite—have essentially the same message: ‘In light of the brevity of life, enjoy yourself!’ This, of itself, may not be too remarkable, but the specific nature and sequence of the advice (feasting, wearing clean clothes, anointing with oils and perfumes, and enjoying one’s wife) suggests a common wisdom tradition.”
Solomon made good use in Ecclesiastes of this proverbial encouragement, but in a different way from these other sources. As the Preaching the Word commentary notes: “All of the passages where he gives this call [to enjoyment] have God at their center. This immediately distinguishes Ecclesiastes from ancient writings like The Epic of Gilgamesh. Why should we enjoy eating and drinking and working [the last item mentioned next]? In chapter 2 it is because these activities are ‘God’s gift to man’ (v. 13). The same is true in chapter 5, which also says that God keeps us ‘occupied with joy’ in our hearts (v. 20). The Preacher may be frustrated with life in this fallen world, but he still acknowledges the gifts that come from the hand of God. We see this perhaps most clearly in Ecclesiastes 9, where the Preacher tells us to enjoy bread and wine because ‘God has already approved what you do’ (v. 7)”—in terms of desiring that we enjoy life, as we’ve seen (p. 213). Moreover, the next line of the Gilgamesh poem after listing the things in life to enjoy says: “These things alone are the concern of men.” Solomon, on the other hand, presents a much bigger picture as the concern of men—God having put “eternity in their hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)— and concludes his treatise by stating that man’s responsibility is to fear God and keep His commandments (Ecclesiastes 12:13). We must enjoy God’s gifts in that context.
Deuteronomy 12, 14 and 16 instructed the Israelites to set aside a tenth of their income so the whole family could rejoice before Him at His annual festivals—enjoying grain, wine, oil and meat—with a major part of the reason being “that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always” (Ecclesiastes 14:23).
In what we’ve gone over of the refrain in Ecclesiastes 9 so far (verses 7-9), we’ve seen the following enjoyment recommended: feasting, with both contentment and comfort, and marital relations and companionship (PTW, p. 213; NAC, note on verses 7-10). Then at the end of verse 9 and in verse 10 we are given another area of life from which to derive joy—work or occupation. Verse 9, again, says to “live joyfully” with one’s wife, “for that is your portion in life, and in the labor which you perform under the sun.” This might seem to read that living joyfully with one’s wife is the portion in one’s life and the portion in one’s labor. But that does not make the best sense here. Of course, enjoying one’s marriage is indeed a product of working to make a good marriage. But “labor” has been used more generally throughout the book, as we’ll recount in a moment, and the same appears true here. The verse can be more clearly read to say “live joyfully” with one’s wife “for that is your portion in life,” and also “live joyfully…in the labor which you perform under the sun [which is also one’s portion].” This transitions into verse 10 regarding working with all of our might.
As noted earlier, Dr. Kaiser’s outline has verse 10 beginning a new subsection of the last part of the book—and certainly the next subsection does build on the idea of working with all one’s strength, along with wisdom. Yet the labor at the end of verse 9, with exhortation concerning it continuing into verse 10, was clearly presented in earlier occurrences of the refrain. As noted in previous comments, Solomon stated in Ecclesiastes 2:24 that it’s not inherent within man “that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God.” In Ecclesiastes 3:13 he said “that every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor—it is the gift of God.” In Ecclesiastes 3:22 he said that “nothing is better than that a man should rejoice in his own works, for that is his heritage.” In Ecclesiastes 5:18-19 he said, “It is good and fitting for one to eat and drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labor in which he toils under the sun…for it is his heritage… To receive his heritage and rejoice in his labor—this is the gift of God.” And where Solomon commended physical enjoyment in 8:15, he said, “for this will remain with him in his labor all the days of his life.” So it stands to reason that labor or work in general is again part of the refrain in chapter 9—in verse 9 to enjoy and in verse 10 as something desirable to participate in before one can’t anymore when taken in death.
Furthermore, verse 10 reiterates the point of verses 4-6—that life is better than death as the dead know nothing, with feelings and opportunities coming to an end. These verses seem to mark an inclusio— the literary device wherein specific words or themes are used as verbal “brackets” or “bookends” at the beginning and end of a passage to set it off—which is more reason to see verse 10 as going with the preceding verses and thus marking the end of the subsection here. The refrain in verses 7-10 would then be the latter half of the inclusio of verses 4-10—the inclusio itself being the latter half of the subsection from 8:16–9:10. (Additionally, the wording of verse 11, “I returned and saw…,” seems to be the start of new material—though building on what’s just been mentioned.)
Concerning the enjoyment of good in man’s work, some see this as merely enjoying the fruit of one’s labor—the end product of the work or what the work earns and is able to buy. And of course there is great value in work in that regard. But there is also enjoyment to be found in work itself—despite the curse of hardship in toil that Adam brought on himself and his descendants through sin (see Genesis 3:17- 19). It feels good to be productive—and that’s in “whatever your hand finds to do,” not just your career. A feeling of achievement and satisfaction comes from a job well done—and even while the job is being done, provided we are not being oppressed or overwhelmed in it. If simply doing nothing is so great, then why is the fact that in the grave there is “no work or device [no inventive way of going about things] or knowledge or wisdom [thus no expertise or skill to apply]” a negative? Clearly it is better to be active and doing things—whatever it is we can do, as best we can, for as long as we can.
Recall that laziness or idleness was decried in Ecclesiastes 4:5, as it will be again in Ecclesiastes 10:18. But also bear in mind that being a workaholic for the big payoff or reward was decried as well (Ecclesiastes 4:6-8). We should strive to do well in whatever work we engage in—yet still allow time to enjoy other things and other people, along with downtime to rest and rejuvenate, as we have the freedom to do so. (God Himself set the example of rest and gave the Sabbath for this purpose. Recall from our introduction a thematic relation between the observance of the Sabbath and the refrains and conclusions of Ecclesiastes.)
Moreover, whatever work we are engaged in, we should consider that we are working for God as the One we should be seeking to please. Colossians 3:23 echoes the first part of Ecclesiastes 9:10 in saying, “And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men.” The word “heartily” here is from the Greek ek psuches, meaning “from out of one’s soul (or being)”—meaning that we give it our all, including all our might. That fits with considering what we do as service to God, as we are to love and obey God with all our heart, soul (or being), mind and strength or might (Deuteronomy 6:5; Mark 12:30). Consider also that the New Testament encourages us to exhibit virtue (2 Peter 1:5) or, as the Greek word arete entails, excellence—the highest quality state that can be reached. God is a God of excellence (verse 3)—and He wants us to strive for that too. We are not to be lackadaisical and half-hearted. Romans 12:11 tells us that we should be “not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.” We should be committed to and passionate about what we put our hand to—and, again, do our best. With God at the center of the duty and enjoyment of our work and living in general, we will keep a right focus in what we do.
Of course, not all of us have the same capacity when it comes to work. Thankfully, as noted in a popular Christian devotional, “we serve a God who loves us more than our work. We must never forget this because there may come a time when our ability to ‘do for God’ is torn from us by health or failure or unforeseen catastrophe. It is in those hours that God wants us to remember that He loves us not for what we do for Him but because of who we are: His children!” (Randy Kilgore, “Always Loved, Always Valued,” Our Daily Bread, Jan. 28, 2017, emphasis in original). This is quite true. Still, there is always something we can and must do—even if it is only to pray (and that should not be regarded in a belittled sense, as praying is one of the most important things we should be doing all the time). We don’t need to worry about what we physically can’t do. The important thing is to do what we can—and to do that with all our might.
The warning about death at the end of verse 10 is to remind us that our time is ticking away. Verses 4-5 had presented the hope of the living as the awareness of coming death—the point being that in thinking about it there is an impetus to prepare for it, to do what we can. Well, your opportunity is now, Solomon says. You need to make the most of it. Carpe diem or seize the day, as we earlier saw. Paul later said in Ephesians 5:15-16 that we must be “redeeming the time, because the days are evil”—as they certainly are in this age, their distractions and problems often hindering us from progress we need to be making (see also Colossians 4:5). Let us be sure to make the most of the precious life we’re given while we still have it—enjoying with grateful hearts the wonderful gifts God gives as we strive with all of our being to serve Him in all we do.