Why??? Eccl. 7-9
King Solomon addresses age-old questions like “Why do the good die young?”
In 1969 singer Peggy Lee had a hit song titled “Is That All There Is?” The woman in the song reflects back over her life, which is filled with disappointments. First, her home burns down. Then her father takes her to the circus; and as she watches the so-called greatest show on Earth, she feels something is missing. Then she falls in love, but her love leaves her.
Finally, as she contemplates death—what she considers the final disappointment—she says she’ll be asking herself the same question she’s asked her entire life: “Is that all there is?” To her, life was unfair, and heartache and disaster ruined her joy.
The Preacher, the writer of Ecclesiastes, asked the same question: “Who knows what is good for man in life, all the days of his vain life which he passes like a shadow? Who can tell a man what will happen after him under the sun?” (Eccl. 6:12). When we die, we leave everything behind; and who knows what others will do with it? Are disappointment and grief all there is to life?
In chapters 7—9 of Ecclesiastes, a book attributed to King Solomon, the Preacher took a philosophical look at issues most of us have dealt with at one time or another and offered his wisdom.
The Problem With People
After emphasizing in chapter 6 that affluence and success do not answer life’s questions and are extremely overvalued, the Preacher said trials and tribulations can benefit us more than lives of ease because they force us to contemplate what really matters in life: “Better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart” (7:2).
Funerals cause us to evaluate our lives and reputations, which he compared to precious perfume (v. 1). Perfume lingers in the air, much like our reputations when we die. This fact should cause us to realize what truly matters.
Then Solomon addressed the age-old questions, “Why do the good die young?” and “Why do the wicked have long, prosperous lives?” He warned against losing our attentiveness to godly wisdom (v. 16). Fake righteousness will destroy, but true virtue will save us from ruin (v. 17). His words encourage us to fear God and avoid the foolishness the world has to offer (v. 18). In fact, he said, it is better to have wisdom than the strength of 10 men (v. 19).
Verse 20 points out that everyone is a sinner: “For there is not a just man on earth who does good and does not sin.” Romans 3:23 parallels this thought: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
The tongue can be particularly offensive. Who among us has never spoken ill of someone? Solomon cautioned against taking to heart what people say because we all have lost control of our tongues. As James 3:5 points out, “The tongue is a little member and boasts great things.” We may all try to speak wisdom, but we don’t always succeed (Eccl. 7:23).
Solomon wrapped up this section by reminding people that he searched for wisdom but found only folly and wickedness (vv. 25–27). He learned one thing: “God made man upright, but [man has] sought out many schemes” (v. 29). In other words, everyone has turned away from God. True wisdom is found in following God. He created us with the ability to know Him, yet we turned from Him to follow our own foolishness.
The apostle Paul said the same thing: “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:20–21).
Dealing With Authority
Chapter 8 of Ecclesiastes could apply to today’s political environment. God has placed people in authority over us. Sometimes we agree with them; sometimes we don’t. Yet we are to respect not only the office, but also the person in the office. Therefore, Solomon said, a wise man will submit cheerfully, even if he disagrees with the ruling authority.
Even autocratic rulers die and will be held accountable for their actions. So it is our responsibility to submit to the leadership God has established, understanding that God is in control and will use that leader to fulfill His will.
But what about corrupt authorities? Verses 9–16 address the issue of why God allows wickedness to flourish in the government He created to protect us. The explanation revolves around the phrase under the sun, meaning here on Earth evil may flourish; but God will bring His judgment on all those who do evil (v. 10). He sees the big picture. We see only the here and now. God works in His time, not ours. And while it may seem that evil people prosper (v. 12), one day they will stand before the Almighty; and “it will not be well with the wicked” (v. 13).
Solomon concluded that life does seem unfair. The wicked do seem to prosper, while the righteous suffer. Yet we are to trust God, seek His wisdom, and enjoy the life He has given us (vv. 16–17).
Time, Chance, and Wisdom
Our lives are in the “hand of God” (9:1). Try as we might, we’ll never be able to truly understand life here on Earth. Isaiah the prophet wrote that God’s ways are higher than our ways (Isa. 55:8–9). God alone knows the beginning from the end, and He usually does not reveal His plans to us. Consequently, we tend to become frustrated and doubtful. Instead, we must trust Him because, as Solomon said, a life without God is a life without meaning (Eccl. 9:1).
Should the Lord tarry, we all will die, no matter who we are. “But for him who is joined to all the living there is hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion” (v. 4). While we live, we should strive to live righteously because once we die, we can no longer add to our reputations; and people will soon forget us (vv. 5–6).
In biblical times, dogs were wild and deadly animals to be feared, not cuddly pets. Lions, on the other hand, symbolized power and strength. The idea is that to be a living dog—someone enduring life with all its trials and tribulations—is still better than being the noblest dead person.
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (v. 10). We are to live as if each day were our last and not put off until tomorrow what we can do today because tomorrow isn’t guaranteed.
The fastest man doesn’t always win the race. The best army may not always win the battle. Nothing in life is a given. “Time and chance happen to them all” (v. 11). Athletes understand this fact. They talk about being at their peak. “It’s our time,” they say, referring to a big game or event. But time marches on both for the athlete and the spectator. God gives us a certain amount of time to accomplish His will. The word chance in verse 11 refers not to fate but, rather, to the unexpected. For example, a fish swimming in the sea doesn’t expect to be caught in a net. Trials and tribulations come suddenly and without explanation. But God is in control and administers every event in our lives.
Chapter 9 ends with a short story about a small city, a great king, and a wise but poor man. The great king attacks the small city, and all looks hopeless for the inhabitants. They’re surrounded, cut off, and have only a few men able to fight.
Yet the poor wise man has a plan, and the city defeats the mighty king and his army. This man deserved at least a medal, but no one remembered him. Though “wisdom is better than strength,” this man’s wisdom was “despised” (v. 16). Unfortunately, the words of the wise are often drowned out by the shouts of the fool.
In his second letter to Timothy, the apostle Paul warned believers of this very thing: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers” (2 Tim. 4:3). Fools despise wisdom (Prov. 23:9).
Yet “wisdom is better than weapons of war; but one sinner destroys much good” (Eccl. 9:18). All it takes is a little leaven to leaven the whole lump (Gal. 5:9). One foolish act, just like one sin, can undo a lifetime of good. How many good reputations have been tarnished by one thoughtless act?
Heartaches and disappointments remind us that wise people will put their trust in God and not allow setbacks to define their lives. They will expect the unexpected, understand that God is in control, and live to please God even though the world may think them foolish.
If we live for God, we won’t be asking, “Is that all there is?” because we’ll know that God “is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6) and that He will reward those who have been faithful.