Elaboration on Uncertainties of Life (8:16-9:6)

8:16 When I set my heart to know wisdom, and to consider the preoccupation that is done on earth--even though one’s eyes should neither see sleep by day nor by night--, 8:17 I observed all the work of God, that man is not able to discover the work that is done under the sun. Therefore man may toil to seek, but he will not discover. And even if the wise wants to know, he is not able to discover. 9:1 For all this I took to heart and all this I ascertained, that the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Man does not know whether it is love or hate; anything awaits them.

Earlier on Qoheleth revealed that (because of the uncertainties of life) he had personally sought the wisdom that would enable him to discover what was to happen, but failed miserably (7:23-24). Now he elaborates on that quest. He says he was determined (“set his heart”) to acquire (“know”) that kind of wisdom. In doing this he was also “to consider,” or evaluate, “the preoccupation that is done on earth.” For since this preoccupation is the human drive to find out about the uncertain future in order to make sense of life (see exposition on 3:10-15), Qoheleth was then himself participating in this preoccupation. His conclusion, as already affirmed repeatedly, is that this preoccupation will be fruitless (3:11; 6:12; 7:14, 23-24; and now 8:17). Here he stresses that neither determination, hard work (“one’s eyes ... neither see sleep by night or by day”) nor even wisdom will make a difference.

In this quest, Qoheleth had “observed all the work of God.” But what he observed concerns “the work that is done under the sun.” Therefore, “This verse explicitly equates God’s work with activity on earth--elsewhere Qohelet only implies that whatever occurs is God’s doing” (Crenshaw 1987: 157). He is reiterating God’s sovereignty over human actions (3:1-15). In our exposition we have already taken this perspective into consideration, and have been (and will be) doing so consistently in interpreting Qoheleth’s speech. Otherwise we would misunderstand him.

The conjunction “For” in 9:1 indicates that Qoheleth now explains how he came to the conclusion that no one, not even the wise, can discover the future. He said he had taken to heart and examined and so had come to recognize (“ascertained”) that even “the righteous and wise and their deeds are in the hand of God.” This means what happens to them and to their deeds are “in the hand of God,” that is, beyond their control. So even they do not know “whether it is love or hate” that “awaits them.” For this reason Qoheleth will soon admonish his audience to be careful (9:10-11:6). In fact, this is another affirmation that proverbial wisdom does not teach that the righteous will always prosper and never suffer. So the wise, even though they understand proverbial wisdom and know what would normally happen to the righteous, cannot pinpoint ahead of time whether it is love or hate that awaits them. If even they cannot discover the future, no one can.

9:2 It is the same for all; there is one fate for the righteous and the wicked; for the good (and the evil), the clean and the unclean; for him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner; he who swears is as he who is afraid to swear. 9:3 This is a grievous thing in all that goes on under the sun, that there is one fate for all. And also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts throughout their lives, and after that they go to the dead. 9:4 But whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 9:5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead do not know anything; and they have no more recompense, for the memory of them is forgotten. 9:6 Even their love, their hate and their envy have already perished; and forever they have no longer a lot in all that is done under the sun.

Qoheleth also revealed that after he had failed to obtain the wisdom needed to know the future, he turned his attention to “the evil of folly and the foolishness of madness” (7:25). He now reflects further on this matter. He begins by reaffirming that “it is the same [fate] for all,” which is death (2:14; 3:2; 6:6). Here he spells out in no uncertain terms that no one will escape this final outcome. For it does not matter whether one is righteous or wicked, good or evil, clear or unclean, et cetera. Then Qoheleth goes on to help his audience see why fearing God is the most sensible response to this reality.

To assure his audience that he has not been glib about this painful reality, he expresses that “This is a grievous thing.” Besides the observation that “there is one fate for all,” he also found something else grievous. He laments that because the righteous have the same outcome as the wicked--“they [also] go to the dead”--people’s hearts are “full of evil” (cf. 8:11). And so “madness [or folly] is in their hearts throughout their lives.” As Garrett comments, “instead of reckoning with the meaning of death, humans fill their lives with the distraction of a thousand passions and squander what little time they have to immediate but insignificant worries” (1993: 331).

To counter this tendency Qoheleth explains that, actually (“But”), “there is hope” for the living because, unlike the dead, they “know that they will die.” This seems ironic, but it is not. For this “hope” is “the opportunity this present life affords to consider the fact of death, as the Preacher has been constantly urging, and to evaluate life accordingly” (Eaton 1983: 126). “Love” and “hate” sum up how people relate to one another; “envy” or rivalry (4:4) sums up how people relate to their work. To say that all these perish when people die, is to describe in a graphic way that the dead forever have no more share (or “lot”) in what happens in this world and in what it offers. Even the only possible “recompense” left, namely, the memory of them, will soon be lost. It is in this sense that “the dead do not know anything.” The statement refers to the dead in relation to this world, and not their condition in the hereafter (cf. Job 14:20-22). It emphasizes the lack of “hope,” or second chance, after we die to do what we could and should have done before we die.

We should then consider the implication of not taking the opportunity to evaluate our life in light of the certainty of death and the inability to know when it happens (because of the uncertainties of life). This evaluation should lead us to fear God because “God so works that man should fear Him” (3:14). In fact this is where Qoheleth’s speech, which is guiding us through such an evaluation, is leading us (12:13). If we do not act on this “hope” in time we will forever lose the opportunity to leave this world as “one who is good in God’s sight” (2:26). Since “God will bring every deed to judgment” (12:14), this cannot be taken lightly. No wonder Qoheleth says “a living dog is better than a dead lion.” In other words, it is better to be alive than dead even if this means being despised like a lowly dog. For unlike the dead, even if they were admired like the mighty lion, the living still have the opportunity to make it right with their Maker before facing Him after death (cf. 12:1-7).

Admonition to Carefreeness (9:7-9)

9:7 Go (then), eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a glad heart, for God has already approved your actions. 9:8 Let your garments be white at all times, and let not oil be lacking on your head. 9:9 Enjoy life with a woman whom you love, all the days of your fleeting life which He has given you under the sun; for this is your lot in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun.

This admonition to enjoy life is in response to what has just been said: the uncertainties of life and the certainty of death, and the need to evaluate life in this light. Here Qoheleth specifically affirms that “God has already approved your actions,” that is, our eating with enjoyment and drinking in gladness. Whybray is probably right: “this may mean the enjoyment of God’s gifts is something which God has decreed from the beginning (cf. 5:18, ‘for this is his lot’).” Wearing white garments and anointing the head with oil both “were signs of joy” as these “were practised on festive occasions.” And since Qoheleth admonishes wearing white “at all times” and not letting the oil “be lacking,” he is commending “the enjoyment of life whenever possible” (1989: 144).

This leads him to highlight for the first time the social dimension of enjoyment: “enjoy life with a woman whom you love.” His choice of the phrase “a woman” instead of “the woman” does not mean he has in mind just any woman; he is still referring to one’s wife (cf. Seow 1997: 301). This choice enables him to address men in general, whether married or not. For the admonition to enjoy life “with a woman whom you love” applies to those who already have such a woman (their wife), as well as those yet to have one; whereas “with the woman whom you love” excludes unattached men. The admonition then also has the effect of encouraging single men to get married (cf. Prov 18:22). It implies that true enjoyment cannot be confined to the individual level. We shall soon see why.

It is significant that Qoheleth highlights enjoyment at the social level in response to the certainty of death as well as the uncertainties of life. According to him, uncertainties in life are intended by God to prod us to fear Him (3:10-15). Therefore, just as the pain from a shepherd’s goading is relieved when the sheep turns and moves in the direction the shepherd wants it to go, fearing God and keeping His commandments alleviates the distress caused by the uncertainties of life. We now apply this teaching to enjoying life with one’s spouse and see how this enjoyment relieves the discomfort of not knowing what awaits us.

Since the “enjoyment” Qoheleth has in mind is that which is experienced “with a glad heart” (9:7), that is, out of a carefree disposition (5:18-20), the very experience of enjoying life with one’s spouse already means that uncertainties in life are no longer bothersome. So the admonition to enjoy life with one’s spouse basically amounts to cultivating the disposition needed for this to happen. Given the human propensity towards selfishness, this requires one to fear God and keep the commandment, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18b), which sums up all the commandments (Gal 5:14; cf. Matt 7:12). This is in fact implied in the admonition to “enjoy life with a woman whom you love.” Enjoying life with one’s spouse involves enjoying one’s spouse as well. This cannot happen without love.

The ability to love and enjoy one’s spouse has far reaching implications. Since in this world we do not know whether it is love or hate that awaits us, we will never experience the blessedness of a stable loving relationship unless we experience it with someone whose love we can always count on. And this is what a spouse is meant to be (Prov 31:10-12). It is a common experience that unless we cultivate at least one life-long (“all the days of your fleeting life”) relationship of such quality, the deepest longings of our heart will not be fulfilled; and it is then hard for life to make sense. Indeed quality relationships constitute another crucial component to the meaning of life (cf. Baird 1985: 119-20). The disposition that enables one to build a quality relationship with his spouse will also enable him to do the same with others. And when life is meaningful and friends and family are helpful we are more prepared to face adversities, and hence less bothered by uncertainties. Otherwise, we will be afflicted with the cares of this world, and no true enjoyment whatsoever is possible. Hence unless we have the disposition to enjoy life at the social level, we do not have what it takes to enjoy life at the individual level.

This shows that if one does not observe the commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself, one will become vulnerable in a seemingly hostile world. Since this commandment sums up all the commandments, it sums up God's purpose for human life (12:13). If we do not observe it, we are out-of-sync with who and what we are and should be; life will not be peaceful and meaningful. In our exposition of 3:22, we have already discussed the implication of enjoying life with one’s spouse not only as one’s “lot” in this life but also “in your labor”; and thereupon highlighted a contemporary folly--live to work, rather than work to live. We now see more clearly that this is not only meaningless; it is indeed “madness” (7:25; 9:3).


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