Read the Passage: Ecclesiastes 9
Universality of Death (9:1–8)
Recall that in Eccl. 8:2–9 Solomon had written about obeying authorities. Then, in Eccl. 8:10–17, Solomon began a discussion about life and death. As he detailed his findings about life and death Solomon explored the relationship between wickedness and righteousness, exhorted his readers to enjoy the moment, and mused about God’s providence. Next, Solomon continues his discussion about death and life into Eccl. 9. In Eccl. 9:1–3 Solomon writes that although there may be moral inequalities on earth (cf. Eccl. 8:14), death happens to all mankind, thus God will ultimately hold everyone accountable for their actions. In this passage Solomon refers to the righteous and to the wicked, the clean and the unclean, the worshiper and the non-worshiper, the good and the evil, and the oath-taker and the oath-breaker, as he teaches “one thing happens to all” (Eccl. 9:3)—that is, they all will die.
While the universal nature of death and judgment can be comforting to some—in that it means God will eventually mete out justice to all—Solomon views the universal nature of death with skeptical ambivalence, for it means that both the righteous and the wicked will soon die. Solomon summarized his thoughts on this topic with the proverb, “A living dog is better than a dead lion” (Eccl. 9:4), which he briefly explains in Eccl. 9:5–6. Recall that in Eccl. 4:2 Solomon had praised both the dead and the unborn, for they escape the vanity of life under the sun. So, in praising the living over the dead in Eccl. 9:4–6 Solomon is speaking about utility not eternity. Indeed, the tension between life being better than death, and life being marked by futility, is one of the reasons why Solomon concludes that life under the sun is vanity. Once again, then, in Eccl. 9:7–8 Solomon encourages his readers to enjoy God’s gifts in the present moment.
Flourishing in Life (9:9–12)
As we’ve previously discussed, at least five times in this book Solomon explicitly exhorts his readers to eat, to drink, and to be merry, enjoying God’s good gifts in the moment (cf. Eccl. 2:24; 3:11–13, 22; 5:18–19; 8:15). Eccl. 9:9–10 contains a related teaching as in this passage Solomon instructs his readers to enjoy their spouse and to be diligent in their labor. Observe that this is the only time in the book of Ecclesiastes where Solomon explicitly mentions one’s marriage partner. Yet, he writes extensively about marriage elsewhere in the wisdom literature (cf. Prov. 5:15–19; Song of Solomon). Solomon’s exhortation in Eccl. 9:9–10, like his prior teaching in Eccl. 9:4–8, is utilitarian in nature, as here Solomon reveals the rationale for his conclusions about life, writing, “There is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going” (Eccl. 9:10).
While Solomon repeatedly exhorts his readers to embrace wisdom in this book, he constantly observes that wisdom is not a guarantee of human flourishing in the fallen world. Given man’s sin and its effect upon the created order, there are simply too many variables in place to conclude that wisdom always results in immediate blessing. Indeed, readers of the wisdom literature are wise to note that moral proverbs are different than moral laws. In Eccl. 9:11 Solomon writes that the swift, the strong, the wise, the understanding, and the skillful do not always flourish, for “time and chance happen to them all” (Eccl. 9:11). Moreover, as Solomon taught in Eccl. 9:1–8, death comes to all mankind, and it usually comes unexpectedly. In Eccl. 9:12 Solomon compares death to a fish being caught in a net, or a bird being caught in a snare, which occur suddenly.
Overlooking of Wisdom (9:13–18)
In Eccl. 9:13–18 Solomon touches upon another aspect of wisdom that betrays vanity—that is, in a context where wisdom is shared and effective, oftentimes the wise person is forgotten, if noticed at all. To make this point, Solomon gives a short parable in Eccl. 9:13–15, which may be a true story. In this narrative a poor wise man rescues an entire city from the siege of a great king; however, the poor wise man was soon forgotten. Solomon notes that while wisdom is superior to strength, a poor wise man without power or position is easily overlooked. In concluding this robust chapter Solomon gives his readers three important principles: first, he writes, “The words of the wise, spoken quietly, should be heard” (Eccl. 9:17); second, Solomon observes, “Wisdom is better than the weapons of war” (Eccl. 9:18a); and third, Solomon notes, “One sinner destroys much good” (Eccl. 9:18b).
- Why is it awkward, or even unacceptable, to most people to talk about death? How can Christians speak well about death, both with each other and with unbelievers?
- Is the fact that death is a commonality among all mankind a comfort or a concern to you? Why does Solomon refer to the universality of death as “evil” (Eccl. 9:3)?
- Do most marriages between believers look different than most marriages between unbelievers? In what ways is marriage a picture of the gospel (cf. Eph. 5:22–33)?
- In the fallen world, how often does wisdom produce human flourishing? What percentage of people are aware of the general timing of their own death?
- What practical things can your church do to identify those who have the spiritual gift of wisdom (cf. 1 Cor. 12:8) and to give them opportunities to use their gift?