New European Commentary

 

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Deeper Commentary

 

Ecc 9:1 For all this I laid to my heart, even to explore all this-
This continues the theme of the preceding verses, where we saw Solomon abrogating the wisdom given him by God, which he didn't reach by any personal intellectual process. But now he has rejected that, and seeks to know wisdom from his own observations explorations and intellectual process ["laid to my heart"]. And that wisdom was associated with his heart turning away from God and to the nihilism of idolatry.

That the righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God-
This must be associated with Solomon's conclusion in Ecc. 8:14 that there is no real advantage of the righteous over the wicked and foolish because they all die the same death. Here Solomon seems to say that righteousness is only anyway part of some predetermined behaviour and is not therefore morally culpable. The idea may be as in GNB "that God controls the actions of wise and righteous people, even their love and their hate". Secular people at the end of their lives often come to the conclusion that everything is somehow overruled by God, to the point that human behaviour is pretty much all Divinely determined and enforced. Solomon at this point had turned away from Yahweh, so he may refer to "God" in a more general sense of some higher power. But he fails to accept the basic thesis of the book of Proverbs; that human actions can be controlled, we have election, and love and hatred are choices. And thereby we are accountable for our actions and to Divine judgment. But Solomon didn't believe in this, and so it led him to conclude that human behaviour isn't that significant and is somehow all orchestrated by some higher hand than our own. See on Ecc. 11:3.

Whether it is love or hatred, man doesn’t know it; all is before them-
The idea may be, as discussed above, that love or hatred, righteousness or sin, has no eternal consequence seeing that all die the same death. GNB "No one knows anything about what lies ahead". This is a frequent lament by Solomon, that he doesn't know the future. He wrote this at the end of his life, and the future in view was death. And yet the promises to David and Abraham clearly offered the resurrection of the body and future eternal inheritance of the earth. Even throughout Proverbs, Solomon sees wisdom as largely just good for this life. He has no eternal, Kingdom perspective, nor does he strongly factor in the final day of judgment. He considered himself the Messianic king, and his kingdom to be God's promised Kingdom. And now he was himself facing death, he realizes that the future is a fearful unknown.

Ecc 9:2 All things come alike to all. There is one event to the righteous and to the wicked; to the good, to the clean, to the unclean, to him who sacrifices, and to him who doesn’t sacrifice-
Solomon is again writing autobiography. He had built the temple of Yahweh, but now at this point in old age his heart had turned away from Yahweh to idols, and he was no longer sacrificing to Yahweh but to the idols, whose temples he had built near Yahweh's (1 Kings 3:4-8). He sees no problem in his choice because he has convinced himself that sacrificers to Yahweh die the same death as those who worship idols.

As is the good, so is the sinner; he who takes an oath, as he who fears an oath-
GNB "one who takes an oath is no better off than one who does not". I suggested above that the first half of this verse refers to Solomon's building of Yahweh's temple but not now sacrificing in it. I noted on Ecc. 5:1-3 that Solomon there comments upon how he had built Yahweh's temple simply because David had made an oath to build it, and that oath became binding on Solomon to fulfil it. He sees the temple which he had forsaken as irrelevant because the builders and users of it would meet the same death as the idolaters.

Solomon cynically concludes that the wicked and the righteous all die the same death, and so, he concludes, there is no great advantage in righteousness (Ecc. 9:2). This contrasts with Solomon's huge emphasis in Proverbs upon the difference between the wicked and the righteous (e.g. Prov. 11:18). But it seems he got to that wrong conclusion because he assumes that the blessing for righteousness is in this life, and likewise the curses for wickedness. He totally fails to think in terms of the future judgment and eternal life of God's future kingdom. And so as he himself got older and approached death, he concluded that death means that all effort towards righteousness is therefore vain. He made the same mistake as the false teachers of 1 Cor. 15:19, who likewise considered that "hope in Christ" was only helpful for "this life", because they rejected the resurrection of the body and future judgment and reward.   

In the end, Solomon felt that for himself, it was as well to be righteous as to be wicked, for in death there was no further difference (Ecc. 9:2,5,9). He knows judgment will come (Ecc. 11:9), at least for the young people, but he reasons as if it won’t- at least not for him. He knows, but he doesn’t know on the personal, experiential level. This is why there are apparently contradictory statements in Ecclesiastes. For example, the wise dies as the fool, with no more eternal remembrance than the fool (Ecc. 2:15,16). This, Solomon, says, is what he himself believes in his own heart. But in Ecc. 7:12 he says that wisdom gives life to those who have it. But then again in Prov. 9:16-18 he observes that although wisdom can help, it’s benefits are easily undone, so easily as to make it useless. I don’t see these different perspectives as being the difference between life in the world and life in the spiritual realm. They are all spoken with conviction by Solomon, which, to my mind, ruins the idea that he himself believed the Truth but was simply outlining what life is like without God. He advocates both ways. My resolution of this is that he knew and preached God’s Truth, but for him personally, it meant nothing at all. And therefore in practice he advocated the life of self-enjoyment, acting as if all the other truth of wisdom was not operative in practice.


Ecc 9:3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one event to all: yes also, the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead-
Solomon sees death as a great evil; GNB "is as wrong as anything that happens in this world". Yet according to Genesis, death was created by God as a punishment for human sin, and the consequence of sin. Had Solomon accepted the message of resurrection of the body and future judgment, he would not have portrayed death so harshly; nor effectively charged God with abusing man by allowing death to happen. What a contrast with Paul, who earnestly desired to "depart" (Phil. 1:23), and the generally hopeful approach to death found in the faithful of the Biblical record.

This verse is to be connected with Ecc. 8:11: "Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil". The sentence against evil may refer to death; for in Ecc. 9:3 Solomon repeats the phrase "the heart of the sons of men is full of evil", blaming this on the fact they are alive and not dead. This is nihilism at its worst. Solomon blames the evil heart of man on the fact he doesn't die from the womb. This is quite wrong reasoning, and reflects how Solomon indeed "hated life".


Ecc 9:4 For to him who is joined with all the living there is hope; for a living dog is better than a dead lion-
A "dog" is a term repeatedly used in the Bible for the immoral. And this is the context in this chapter, arguing that righteousness or wickedness has no eternal consequence. An immoral man yet still alive is "better" than a dead lion of a man, morally and politically king of all. For Solomon refuses to accept any conception of resurrection.

In passing, it needs to be noted that the LXX uses the word koinonio here. We are in a sense in fellowship with the world in that we are human- we are "joined (LXX koinonio -fellowshipped) to all the living" (Ecc. 9:4); we are guilty in some way for the rejection of God's Son- we turned away from Him, and esteemed Him rejected of God (Is. 53:3,4). But we can do nothing about being members of the human race. We cannot exit from humanity, as we cannot exit from the body of Christ. Guilt by association, if we must use that phrase, is something we can do nothing about.


Ecc 9:5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead don’t know anything, neither do they have any more a reward; for their memory is forgotten-
Solomon may mean that their memory is forgotten by men. Throughout Proverbs and Ecclesiastes he seems to think that leaving a good memory is the best outcome that can be hoped for from living by "wisdom". But he now accepts that over the passage of time, even that will fade. He fails to accept that  the memory of the righteous remains with God, and is the basis for their eternal judgment. Again we see how having a permanent, positive memorial in society was so important for Solomon. Even in his book of Proverbs, he sees the advantage of wisdom as being in that men will think well of the wise, and they progress in society. But now Solomon is struck by the reality of the fact that ultimately, memory of all the living will be forgotten as the generations pass. He fails to factor in that it is the wicked whose memory is forgotten (Ps. 49:11), but the memory of the righteous will be preserved (Ps. 112:6; Mal. 3:16). Solomon refused to accept his father's teaching on this, even though he claims to glorify him.


Ecc 9:6 Also their love, their hatred, and their envy has perished long ago; neither have they any more a portion forever in anything that is done under the sun-
Solomon has much to say about the evil of envy (e.g. Prov. 14:30; 23:17; 24:1,19; 27:4). But true as his condemnations of envy are, he surely has in mind the way that Ephraim envied Judah, and envied his throne (s.w. Is. 11:13). This all came to full term after his death, when Ephraim departed from Judah under Jeroboam. Again, Solomon is harnessing Divine truth to his own agenda of self justification. And we who claim to hold His truths must take warning. But as he faced death, he came to realize that all such envy is as nothing before the reality of death, which he understood as the end of life, as he had assumed this life was the time for reward and expresses no personal hope in a resurrection of the body (Ecc. 4:4; 9:6). 

He considers that all the love and hatred, the good and the bad done by the righteous and wicked, is meaningless because they die the same death. Again he refuses to accept his father's understanding, that it is the wicked who only have a portion in this life (Ps. 17:14). But the righteous have an eternal portion, which God's true Israel can look forward to receiving at the last day.


Ecc 9:7 Go your way- eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already accepted your works-
We must remember that this was written at a time when Solomon had turned away from God. He has just been arguing that whether a man lives in righteousness or sin, in love or hatred, it makes no difference because he dies the same death. He considers God incapable of resurrecting and judging a man after death (Ecc. 3:22). So I would take this as Solomon saying sarcastically: 'Get on an enjoy your life, make your heart merry with wine, and don't worry, 'God' accepts you whatever you do'. 

So the idea is as GNB: "It's all right with God". Solomon at this point had turned away from God, so we can read this as sarcasm. He has advocated eating and drinking in Ecc. 8:14,15 because he thinks that there is no ultimate judgment nor difference in outcome for the wicked and the righteous. And so now he sarcastically quips that it's OK to eat and drink, because God is good with that- He's good with anything. So Solomon liked to think. The idea of a last day of judgment and eternal consequence is clearly in the Bible as he then had it available to him. And it is engrained even in the conscience of secular man. To deny this so strenuously was therefore wilful and very consciously done. And the use of sarcasm reflects that. 

 But the Hebrew translated “accepts” means literally to satisfy a debt, and is elsewhere translated ‘to reconcile self’. It could be that he saw works as reconciling man’s debt to God, rather than perceiving that grace is paramount. He keeps on about David his father; and yet there was a crucial difference. David perceived the need for grace as the basis of man’s reconciliation with God; whereas Solomon thought it was works. David wrote that God wants a broken heart and not thousands of sacrifices; yet Solomon offered the thousands of sacrifices, but didn’t have the contrite heart of his father.


Ecc 9:8 Let your garments be always white, and don’t let your head lack oil-
The idea is as discussed on :7, to get on and enjoy life and not to let ourselves "lack" any pleasure, because this life is all we have, and there will be no judgment from God; so Solomon thought.


Ecc 9:9 Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of your life of vanity, which He has given you under the sun, all your days of vanity: for that is your portion in life, and in your labour in which you labour under the sun-
Elsewhere Solomon concludes that life is vain and pointless, and one may as well have been a stillborn child or never have existed. He "hated life" (Ecc. 2:17). But he concludes that one may as well live joyfully with one wife, not be righteous over much and not be overly wicked, in order to have a reasonable experience. His idea is that our "portion" is only in this life. He disregarded his father David's sense that Yahweh was his portion (Ps. 16:5 s.w.), and the huge emphasis that the eternal inheritance of the earth in the future Kingdom of God was the "portion" of the true Israel, as promised to Abraham and repeated in the Biblical record. But Solomon blacked out, as it were, all that. He saw this life as our portion and nothing more.

He exhorted to live joyfully with “the wife” (singular) of youth, knowing full well that he in his old age was a polygamist whose many wives had led him astray. This is typical of how Ecclesiastes is so packed with reflections of the contradictions within Solomon's mind. They arise because Solomon knew and perceived God’s truth, and yet felt it meant nothing to him personally. Thus he teaches truth in Ecclesiastes, but intersperses it with his own personal depression and sense that none of it really has any meaning for him personally. The themes of labour, vanity, sleep and children which are found in Ecclesiastes all occur in Psalm 127, a Psalm of or for Solomon- where the message is clearly given that unless the Lord builds the temple, all this labour is in vain. And yet knowing this Solomon did labour for it so hard, and then came to the conclusion that it was indeed in vain. If only he had believed the words he earlier composed and sung in Ps. 127, he needn’t have had to come to that sad conclusion. 


Ecc 9:10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in Sheol, where you are going-
This comment that there is no wisdom in the grave suggests that he saw wisdom as only helpful for this life. And this is implied a number of times even in the book of Proverbs. We note that Solomon understood sheol as the grave, a state of unconsciousness. There is no Biblical support for the idea of "hell" as a place of conscious punishment or existence.

Much of the Preacher's message is built on the tragic finality of death being an imperative to present action. And this is true, even though Solomon meant it in the context of his wrong belief that there is no future judgment nor Kingdom of God. He has some fine images of this finality; the silver cord breaks in just one link, and the beautiful bowl of life, of this body, crashes to the dusty floor and smashes; the rope holding the bucket breaks and it plunges irretrievably into the well; and as David observed, in death we are as water spilt on the ground on a hot day, which cannot be gathered up. We are as children who have dropped their precious sweets in the dust, fraught with the realization they are spoilt for good and there are no more. They may look up to us for more, and with as much pain in our eyes as is in theirs, we turn out our pockets to show there are no more. And so the tragedy of the human experience teaches us to live life in the Lord's service to the full, not frittering it away on the time-wasters of this world. Moses pleaded with God to make time-frittering Israel see the implications of their mortality; having eloquently spoken of the tragedy of our mortality, he concludes: "So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom" (Ps. 90:12).

Perhaps the Lord was speaking in a kind of soliloquy when He mused that "the night comes, when no man can work", and therefore man should walk and work while he has the light (Jn. 9:4, quoting Ecc. 9:10). He was speaking, in the context, not only of His own zeal to 'work' while He had life, but also applying this to His followers.

It’s only when faced with death that we realize the crucial and wonderful importance of every hour which we’ve been given to live. Facing death as he thought, Job reflected upon the tragic brevity and speed of passing of human life, and the true meaning of the Hebrew word nephesh: “My days sprint past me like runners; I will never see them again. They glide by me like sailboats…” (Job 9:25). Life is indeed racing by; time management, and freeing our real selves from all the myriad things which compete to take up our time, becomes of vital importance once we realize this. There is only one ultimate thing worth studying, striving after, labouring for, reading about, working towards… and grasping the mortality of man inspires us in living out this understanding. TV, novels, endless surfing of the internet, engagement in pointless communication and discussion in this communication-crazy world… all this beguiles us of life itself.

Ecc 9:11 I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all-
This continues Solomon's impression that wisdom and righteousness is of no ultimate value because the wise and foolish all die the same death. "Time and chance" may be an idiom for death.  Whether wise (spiritually) or strong or swift, the same thing, "time and chance", happens to all; i. e. death. Ecc. 9:12 backs this up: "For man also knoweth not his time (i.e. of death)... as the birds that are caught in the snare (i.e. killed); so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them". The context back in :4,5 is clearly talking about the universality of death. "Chance" does not mean 'random' or uncontrolled events. The Hebrew root by contrast implies something specifically ordained- often by God. In this case, death.

Or it could continue the sense Solomon has that there are factors in life which control our behaviour and experiences, well beyond the effect of living a righteous or foolish life. "All men" in Ecc. 9:11 in the context seems to mean "all men" literally- it does in Ecc. 3:20 and other 'mortality of man' passages. But it we take "time and chance" on face value as a translation, Paul appears to deconstruct this negative take on life by noting that for the believer, "all things work together for good". "All things" therefore delivers us from any fear that we are at the whim of random "time and chance". Whereas Solomon seems to here reject his earlier wisdom of Prov. 13:15, concluding life is just a random sequence of events.

Ecc 9:12 For man also doesn’t know his time-
As noted on :11, the "time" in view is the time of death.

As the fish that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare, even so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falls suddenly on them-
This language of snares and entrapment was often used by Solomon's father David, asking to be saved from such snares (Ps. 141:9) and rejoicing that he and God's people had been (Ps. 124:7). But Solomon seems to be cynically commenting that all men are finally snared in death. In Proverbs, Solomon is continually alluding positively to his father's words. But now he alludes to those words cynically. He was no longer living out parental expectation, although it took him until older life to individuate. And when he did, he is revealed as having no real personal faith at all. Earlier Solomon had warned about avoiding spiritual snares (Prov. 7:23; 22:5), but finally in Ecc. 9:12 he concludes that death is the unavoidable snare; and therefore all attempts to avoid being morally snared into sin are ultimately vain. He came to this perspective because he failed to fully grasp the hope of the resurrection of the body at the last day. He thought he would have the Kingdom now, and this led to his rejection of the Gospel of the Kingdom and its moral implications.

Here he says  that he suffered the fate of all men in that soon  he would die, he would suddenly be caught like a bird in a snare, although  he knew not his time. These are the very ideas of  Prov. 7:23  concerning the snaring of the simple young man by the  Gentile woman: "As a bird hastes to the snare, and knows not that it is for his life". And yet he seems to rationalize this by claiming that death is a snare brought about by time and chance; he minimalized the sin of marriage out of  the faith

 
Ecc 9:13 I have also seen wisdom under the sun in this way, and it seemed great to me-
After the terrible statements of the previous verses, which I have shown were a negation of his father's wisdom and spiritual positions, Solomon seems to feel the need to say something positive about wisdom. But as ever, his idea is that wisdom is indeed helpful in this life, it has some advantages, but it still fails to give any lasting memorial. Because over the passage of time, the totality of death destroys all such hope of having a lasting memorial.


Ecc 9:14 There was a little city, and few men within it; and a great king came against it, besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it-
LXX "Suppose there was a little city" makes this hypothetical. And surely it was a hypothetical example at the time. But I have pointed out on Prov. 25:1 that Hezekiah was particularly interested in Solomon and his words. And it turned out to be a kind of morbid fascination, because he in his later life followed the same path to spiritual destruction as Solomon. The example which Solomon cites of wisdom being advantageous in this life is so relevant to the salvation of Jerusalem from the Assyrians. So relevant that we could therefore conclude that just as Hezekiah's scribes rewrote some of Solomon's Proverbs under inspiration (Prov. 25:1), so they edited this part of Ecclesiastes to make it relevant to Hezekiah's time. And the references to life as a "shadow" would be relevant to the reversal of the shadow on the sundial as the sign given to Hezekiah (Is. 38:8). Or perhaps this is an uncanny prophecy put in the mouth of the apostate Solomon, as in Jn. 11:51. The language is all clearly relevant to this: the few men within Jerusalem (Is. 24:6; 36:8) compared to the size of the "great king" of Assyria (Is. 36:13) with his "great host" (2 Kings 18:17), who besieged Jerusalem (Is. 1:8; 37:25) with siege engines (according to the depictions on Sennacherib's prism).   


Ecc 9:15 Now a poor wise man was found in it, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man-
The poor wise man of the Assyrian siege was presumably Isaiah. But he was not remembered with gratitude, and Jewish sources record that Hezekiah and Manasseh persecuted and murdered Isaiah; see on :16. Solomon shared the common view of his time that being a wise man was only ultimately valuable and worthy if he therefore had a memorial after his death. Hence the uninspired Book of Wisdom speaks of how "I for the sake of wisdom shall have estimation among the multitude, and honor with the elders, though I be young... By the means of her I shall obtain immortality, and leave behind me an everlasting memorial" (Wisdom 8:10-13). But Solomon is lamenting that the memory of the wise ultimately fades. And therefore wisdom is of no ultimate value because wise and foolish die the same death. So many of Solomon's Proverbs seem to stress the advantage of wisdom as being in this life. 


Ecc 9:16 Then I said, Wisdom is better than strength. Nevertheless the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard-
GNB "I have always said that wisdom is better than strength, but no one thinks of the poor as wise or pays any attention to what they say". As explained on :15, Solomon admits wisdom has some advantage, but not in any ultimate terms. For he says that the poor wise man earned no lasting respect for how he saved the city. Indeed, he was despised afterwards and his further words of wisdom were disregarded, just as happened to Isaiah (see on :14). 


Ecc 9:17 The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the cry of him who rules among fools-
As noted on previous verses, Solomon's point in all this is that the wise man has no lasting memorial, and is only heard in quiet and obscurity. And for Solomon, wisdom is only worth anything if it leaves you with fame and a lasting memorial to yourself in the eyes of men. The problem of death, the same death for the wise and the foolish, as Solomon things, means that there is little advantage in being a "wise man". And Solomon was the preeminently wise man, thanks to the wisdom God gave him; but he now abrogates all that and sees no lasting point in it.

But he may be making historical allusions. The book of Proverbs has in view a bad ruler (s.w. Prov. 28:15; 29:2,12,26; Ecc. 9:17). And this bad ruler offers deceitful food (Prov. 23:3), which Solomon in Prov. 23 advises against eating. We need to recall that eating together was seen as a sign of fellowship and acceptance of each other within the same cause. Solomon may have in view Jeroboam, who clearly sought to usurp Solomon as king. Or he may be alluding back to the various people like Absalom and Adonijah who had feasted to celebrate their apparent usurping of David's throne. The LXX in Prov. 23:1-8 reads rather differently to the Masoretic Text, and speaks much of the evil of the ruler in view.


Ecc 9:18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war; but one sinner destroys much good
-
In the end, Solomon felt that for himself, it was as well to be righteous as to be wicked, for in death there was no further difference (Ecc. 9:2,5,9). He knows judgment will come in some form, perhaps just in this life (Ecc. 11:9), at least for the young people; but he reasons as if it won’t- at least not for him. He knows, but he doesn’t know on the personal, experiential level. This is why there are apparently contradictory statements in Ecclesiastes. For example, the wise dies as the fool, with no more eternal remembrance than the fool (Ecc. 2:15,16). This, Solomon, says, is what he himself believes in his own heart. Here in Ecc. 9:16-18 he observes that although wisdom can help, its benefits are easily undone, so easily as to make it useless. I don’t see these different perspectives as being the difference between life in the world and life in the spiritual realm. They are all spoken with conviction by Solomon, which, to my mind, ruins the idea that he himself believed the Truth but was simply outlining what life is like without God. My resolution of this is that he had known and preached God’s Truth, but for him personally, it meant nothing at all. And faced with the problem of eternal death for all, as he thought, therefore in practice he advocated the life of self-enjoyment, acting as if all the other truth of wisdom was not operative in practice.

He may even have himself in view, consciously or unconsciously, in saying that "one sinner destroys much good". All the good established by his father David, and the potentials he had had, were all undone by his sin. He knows that, perceives it, but will not repent.