No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it. –Ecclesiastes 8:17
One of the songs popular early in the twentieth century was Victor Herbert’s Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life. It posed the question, “What makes life truly significant?” His solution to the question was human love:
For it is love for which the work! is seeking; and it is love and love alone which can repay.
But King Solomon, in his quest to understand the riddles of life, does not agree with that. He found that the secret of life is enjoyment, a sense of contentment about life. That is where the answers are found.
This section, beginning with verse 16 of chapter 8, marks the last of the four major divisions of Ecclesiastes. From here to the end of the book the author does not introduce anything new. He simply repeats and enlarges upon the claim he has made all along, that the significance of life is found only in daily contact with the living God.
In this section he reminds us that we are to take life as it comes and not insist on understanding everything about it. Here he gives four good reasons for not trying to solve all the problems and answer all the questions that life throws at us.
The first reason is found in 8:16-17.
When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe man’s labor on earth–his eyes not seeing sleep day or night–then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.
The Searcher’s claim is quite clear. Life is too complicated, too vast, too filled with conflicting elements for anyone to figure out all the answers. Even sleepless toil will not solve life’s mysteries. Though we stay up all night and day, trying to think through and understand the complicated events that bring to pass the circumstances of our lives, we will never fully understand.
The Bible never condemns our attempts at understanding life. Rather, the pursuit of knowledge is everywhere encouraged in Scripture. We must never adopt the attitude of anti-intellectualism that characterizes some segments of Christianity.
The mind does matter. We are to reason and think about what God is doing and what life gives us. But we must always remember, as the argument makes clear here, that no matter how much we try to understand life, mysteries will still remain. We do not have enough data, nor do we have the ability to see life in its totality to answer all the questions. We must be content with some degree of mystery.
Though these words were written by the wisest man of the ancient world, a man who had gained a reputation for wisdom, yet he freely admits that man cannot know all the answers. He says that even diligence in labor will not unravel life’s mysteries: “Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning.” We will still be left knitting our brows, scratching our heads, and asking the eternal “Why?”
Men often claim to know the answers behind what happens to us, but they are only deceiving themselves. Many people are unwilling to accept the truth of Scripture until they can understand everything in it. But if you wait for that, you will never make it. This book was written almost 2,500 years ago, yet the truth it represents is so vast that even in our age of advanced knowledge no one can find all the answers.
Today many hope that the computer will solve the great mysteries of life. The hope of humanity today centers around this remarkable invention, with its ability to do far more than a single human mind can comprehend. I am not denigrating the marvel of computer science; it has changed the whole course of our age. But even these great computers, with their ability to compress knowledge into microchips containing information that once could have been found only in whole libraries, nevertheless still cannot solve all the problems of life. Life is simply too complicated.
Think about your own life, about how many of the things that have happened to you have been determined by events over which you had no control, and which had to fall together in a certain pattern before they could ever have come to pass.
How, then, can we understand that strange merging of simplicity and complexity? The Qoheleth argues that life is too complicated for us ever to answer all the questions and understand all the mysteries. We must learn to cry with the apostle Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments, and His paths beyond tracing out!” (Romans 11:33).
The Qoheleth has a second argument that reflects this word from Paul:
I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no man knows whether love or hate awaits him (9:1).
“I have been meditating on this, observing, seeking, and thinking about it,” he says. “I have come to the conclusion that even though we may understand that we are in the hand of God, nevertheless it is difficult to know from the events that happen to us whether we have His approval or disapproval” (whether it is love or hate).
This has been stated several times already in this book. We saw that prosperity is not always a sign that God is happy with you; even the wicked prosper sometimes. Adversity, on the other hand, is not always a sign that you are being punished by God. The book of Job is proof of that. Job’s three tormentors, whom he called his “friends,” were convinced that what was happening to Job was a sign that God was angry at him, and was punishing him for sin. But by the end of the book it is clear they are entirely wrong. All suffering, all personal problems, do not always come (although they sometimes do) as a result of God’s disapproval.
So again we must learn to live with mystery. We are not smart enough, we do not see enough, we do not understand enough. None of our vaunted technology will answer all the questions. Eventually we must agree with God’s words, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways” (Isaiah 55:8). That is one of the most difficult lessons to learn in life. We think that because God tells us certain things about Himself we can figure out what He is going to do.
We must resist that. We can never anticipate God’s sovereign plans. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). God will never be false to His character; He will never contradict what He said. It’s just that we are not always smart enough to figure it out or anticipate it.
Beginning at this latter part of verse 1 and running through verse 6 is a section in which the Searcher confronts death as the ultimate mystery. This is a rather gloomy section. In reading through this book you may have noted that the author seems preoccupied with death. We are not used to that today. We live in a time when people are busily trying to forget about death. We have devised means by which we can-temporarily at least–maintain the illusion that life is going to go on forever. But the Scriptures are honest and realistic. Consequently they often face the fact of death. We see that in this passage:
Everything that confronts them [its] is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice. As are the good, so are the sinners; those who swear are like those who shun an oath.
This is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate [one event] comes to everyone. Moreover, the hearts of all are full of evil; madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead (9:1-3, NRSV).
Death is the great equalizer, he says. No matter if we are righteous or unrighteous, good, bad, or indifferent, death comes to all. Death is the great proof that there is something wrong about humanity; it forces us to face reality
I have often noticed that some people, especially non-Christians, are very uncomfortable at funerals. They are nervous and edgy. They want to get it over quickly and get back to their local bar or their comfortable living room. I have often asked myself, “What is it about funerals that makes people so nervous?”
The answer I came to is that a funeral doesn’t permit us to escape ultimate reality. A funeral is proof that we are not in control of our own lives. Few would choose to die if they had any way of preventing it, yet there is going to be an end to our existence. This is what makes people uncomfortable and anxious to get back to the soothing illusions of life.
The fact that death comes to both good and bad forces us to face the evil within us. Notice what this Searcher concludes. “The hearts of all are full of evil; madness is in their hearts while they live” (verse 3). That is the reason for death. According to the Scriptures, death comes because of sin: “Sin entered the world … and death through sir” (Romans 5:12). Death spread throughout humanity because there is evil in us.
Our own death is the hard, square peg that refuses to fit into all the round holes we plan for our future; it is the sand in our oyster that irritates us and makes our spirits protest against it. Why should we learn all these great lessons of life, just to give them up without opportunity to use them once we finally have them mastered? Something about that makes us protest.
If we have been brought up to believe the universal lie of our day–which is being flung at us all the time through the media–that we deserve to live, then this constantly approaching termination of our life challenges that illusion. In the eyes of the God of the universe, we do not deserve to live. If we are allowed life beyond death it is a gift of God’s grace, not something we have earned ourselves. Something in us makes us deserve to die; that is what universal death declares.
That is what makes everybody essentially religious and why man cannot live like an animal. Even those who claim atheism, and who attempt to act and live as though there were no God, demonstrate from time to time that they do not really believe that. Beyond death is something or someone–they do not know who or what–waiting for them. So they cannot be comfortable with the idea of atheism. They have to find answers to the problems of life, and death is what forces them to do that.
An article by Brooks Alexander of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project in Berkeley, makes a marvelous statement about this theme of death.
Just as death is, humanly speaking, a final and total separation, so the awareness of that end shatters our attempt to find some sense or value in the pattern of life here and now.
When people try to live only for this life, when all their values are centered here and they see nothing beyond this, they are never able to solve the riddles or questions of life. The thing that constantly intrudes upon them is the fact of death; they cannot find any final philosophy that comforts and satisfies when they think of death.
As that final entropy creeps backward into our every experience, it brings with it a conviction of brokenness, anxiety and alienation that penetrates to the heart of our being. All religion ultimately is an attempt to come to terms with the pervasive and insidious fragmentation of our lives that is introduced by the prospective certainty of death.
Somehow we sense this even though we will not talk about it. We have to try to find an answer, and that is what makes us religious. Alexander concludes:
Humanity cannot therefore escape a religious response to its condition, because individual humans can never escape the fact that they must die. This religious response is specifically a groping for some ground of unity that will enable us to grasp an unknown harmony beyond the brittle disintegration of meaning that fractures all our hopes and pleasures.
Those insightful statements simply mean that we are restless and unhappy until we find an answer beyond ourselves that will give unity to our life both now and in that which may follow. Therefore we become religious beings.
Notice how Qoheleth continues:
Anyone who is among the living has hope [That is, while there’s life there’s hope] –even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!
For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. Their love, their hate, and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun (9:4-6).
This, of course, does not mean there is no life after death. This is clearly written from the perspective of this life, “under the sun.” From that perspective, when people die they cannot return; all the glamour, joy, satisfaction, peace, and happiness that this life can afford is forever ended. There is no question about that, and that is all this is stating.
So if we are going to get anything out of life, if our present existence is to have any meaning at all, it must be found now; that is his argument. Do not waste your life, do not run after every titillating experience, every empty pleasure that life may fling at you. Do not try to lose yourself in a merry round of forgetfulness. Use life–that is his argument. Fill it to the full, discover its purpose now, for whatever meaning life may have it must be found right now.
Thus we are not to seek after comfort, but significance. “What are you living for?” That is his question. It may be put, “What are you dying for? What is the purpose of your existence?” I urge everyone individually to answer that. Why are you here? What is it all about? If life has any purpose at all it must be found in what happens now. And it is this book’s goal to bring us to an answer, to help us see what that purpose is.
Once again the Searcher comes to the conclusion–reached many times already–which is expressed most fully in verses 7-10:
Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going (NRSV).
Sheol means the grave. It does not, in this reference at least, mean hell.
It means the grave, the end of this life. In this remarkable verse there is a statement of what the New Testament calls the New Covenant, God’s new provision for living. It is clear from the New Testament that God has given a gift of approval, of righteousness. Because we already have that by faith, we are freed; no longer do we have to struggle vainly to please God. We can live in a way that does please Him because we have already been accepted and approved by Him.
Notice how clearly that is stated in verse 7: “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do.” This is a recognition, even in the Old Testament, of a relationship of righteousness that has been established. We know now that that basis was laid in our Lord’s coming into this world in time, and in His subsequent death and resurrection. Yet it is applied to people in the Old Testament, as well as in the New, who had faith in what God declared, who believed His Word and thus were given the gift of righteousness.
Here the Searcher declares what is the real basis for life. If you want to find significance in your life, if you want to find deep meaning, peace, and contentment, this is the basis of it: Believe what God has given you already, and then, on that basis, live your life to the full. Fill it with all that is of value, reason, and worth.
“Let your garments always be white,” says verse 8. White garments are a symbol in Scripture of practical righteousness, of good deeds which flow out of this new relationship.
“Do not let oil be lacking on your head.” Oil is the symbol of the Holy Spirit at work. So here is a life filled with the Spirit, full of good works, all flowing out of the realization that we are already accepted by God. That is the new basis for living.
That is what Paul describes in Romans: “Sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law [with its demand that you measure up before God will accept you], but under grace” [with its marvelous provision of righteousness as a gift] (Romans 6:14). It is yours for the taking, though you do not deserve it, and by it you are rendered fully accepted and loved by God.
Right living follows that, and thus Solomon encourages us to live a normal life. “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life.” God likes that. He ordained marriage to make that possible, and it is right to enjoy the fullness of marriage, its companionship, its conjugal joys.
And enjoy your God-given work! Work is not a curse; it is not something we are forced to do in order to keep alive. Work is a God-given blessing. In days of increasing unemployment many rediscover that it is a pleasant thing to have work to do. Do it with all your might; that is the way to enjoy it. Throw yourself into it, do not just get through the best you can so you can get home and start enjoying yourself. The modern proverb says, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is ready for the weekend!” Many of us live (or seek to live) that way, but that is not the biblical way. The biblical approach is that work is given to you as a gift of God, so enjoy it; do it with all your might, because it is God’s gift to you.
Do we live like this? We who are Christians, we who have experienced the gift of righteousness and have discovered the secret of contentment, of being able to handle even difficult conditions because of the joy that God imparts to us by His presence within–have we begun to live this way? I ask myself that. Is there an aura of peace about all that I do? When people look into my eyes, do they see a heart at rest, at peace? When they look into yours, do they see that?
Watch the eyes of people who are filling the stores and offices and you will often see emptiness, loneliness, misery, and heartache. But Christians are called to a different way of life, to a secret that others do not know. There is to be calmness, a peace, a consciousness about us that no matter what happens, it is never going to be too bad or too difficult, because we have with us a God who will enable us to handle it. Do we view life that way?
What is your view of approaching death? Do you have some sense of anticipation about it, with the awareness that beyond death is the final explanation of all the unanswered questions of life?
I became a Christian when I was eleven years old. Like all young boys, I faced life with mixed feelings of anticipation and dread. But one thing I have always wanted to do was to grow old. God has answered that prayer! Now, as I near the end, I can say that looking ahead is filled with happy anticipation that God is going to answer all the questions that I have had to leave unanswered. The full meaning of this present experience will never be known until death intervenes. Then will come all the answers, abundantly, satisfying, fully.
That is the Christian perspective of life. If we succumb to the empty view of the world around us, we too will find ourselves all ajitter, frustrated, bitter, angry, and upset with our circumstances. But these words of Solomon call us to realize that the meaning of life can never be found by trying to solve all its problems. Rather, it is by trusting in the living God, who knows what He is doing and who is working out His strange purposes through our lives, teaching us all we need to know as we go on through. Then our eyes will reflect the peace of God and our hearts shall respond with joy at the promises that await a fulfillment yet to come.
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