Hopefully one of the things we've been learning from Ecclesiastes is to face up to reality. The Christian faith is about reality. It is reality. That's what the Bible says about itself: it's God's holy and inerrant and infallible word for us. We must listen to its message, and act on the basis of it.
However, looking at reality can be uncomfortable. The Bible has plenty of comfort for us when we understand its message of salvation and repent of our sins; but it is not always a comfortable book. And Ecclesiastes is a particularly uncomfortable book within the Bible. We've seen that in Ecclesiastes, the Teacher or Preacher, tells us that much of what we value and chase after in life will slip through our fingers. He tells us that we don't know nearly as much as we think we know; not about the world, or about ourselves, or about God. And so we would do well to talk less and listen more; specifically, we should listen to what God has to say about things, and let him correct our wrong views, because he is in heaven and we are on earth.
So the Teacher in Ecclesiastes wants to disturb us out of our complacency, to make us uncomfortable, in order to wake us up to what's really going on. And as we study chapter 9, we'll see the Teacher calls us to do three things: to be realistic about death, to live with the fact of death, and to value wisdom, even though the world does not value it.
A call to be realistic about death v1-6.
Read verses 1-2:
"So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God's hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them. 2 All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.
As it is with the good,
so with the sinful;
as it is with those who take oaths,
so with those who are afraid to take them."
Verse 1 of our passage refers back to chapter 8, which Chris preached on last week. It's the Teacher's conclusion based on what he observed in 8:11-14. There he remarks that, although the wicked seem to get along well in life, while the righteous often suffer, everything will be put right ultimately when God brings all things to judgement. Similarly in chapter 9:1, we see that the righteous and wise are in God's hands, which is the best place to be, even if in this life they don't know whether love or hate awaits them. We need to keep that assurance of God's people being ultimately secure in mind as we move on through the challenging verses of this chapter.
The challenge is there in verse 2 where we are reminded that death comes to everyone; as the Teacher puts it, all of us share 'a common destiny'; whether righteous or unrighteous, good or bad.
We know this already; and yet we don't always face up to it. An article in the Daily Telegraph about modern attitudes to death puts it like this:
"We will all die at some stage. All of us. That includes you. And your loved ones. Nobody is immune. Death is as much a fact of life as breathing air is to survive."
The writer goes on to ask a question:
"So why are we so at pains to ignore it? More than half of Britons in relationships are unaware of their partners' end-of-life wishes."
As a society, we don't talk about death, even with the people closest to us, because we don't want to think of death. Well the Teacher wants to think about it. He presses us to think about death in the next 4 verses:
"This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of people, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. 4 Anyone who is among the living has 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 their name 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.
This is not a flattering picture of the human race, or where we are headed. He says in verse 3 that 'the hearts of people…are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live'. What are people really like?It's tempting to say people are a mixture of good and bad. It seems that way to us sometimes. But the Teacher says, no, fundamentally people are bad. That's our default setting.
Nor does the Teacher give a happy prospect of our future state.
We like to tell ourselves that the future is bright. But he wants us to see that a day is coming for each one of us, when all our projects, all our hopes and fears, will be forgotten. If we're fortunate, perhaps someone will take the time to compose a few kind thoughts about us to speak at our funeral; maybe we will have a few people who remember us for a while, but then they will have to get on without us. From that day forward, never again will we have a part in anything that happens in this world 'under the sun' as verse 6 puts it. There'll be no more family life for us. No more work. No more hobbies or holidays. No entertainment. No more whiling away our time on gadgets or watching the rugby or Netflix. We won't be voting for the next government or campaigning for change or doing voluntary work, or looking forward to retirement. We just won't be involved anymore and the world will go its way without us. We will be a photo on the shelf.
This is a daunting thought to say the least, so again, we try to ignore it; we distract ourselves from thinking about it seriously. Think of our society today. 24/7. On the go. Always connected. We are probably the most distracted people ever.
But then something happens that makes us think: we are struck by the suddenness and brutality of a terrorist attack; or someone we love dies. And we wonder when will my turn come? For a while, we're brought up short. We take our own mortality to heart. The Teacher's words; they're blunt – but they're also true.
Even so, someone might argue, you're better off ignoring the fact of death. Let's just forget what the Teacher says, because if we listen to him, we'll just be paralysed and unable to get on with day to day life. That brings us to our next section.
Living with the Fact of death v7-10
"Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labour under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom."
Here Solomon is teaching us to enjoy God's good gifts, because these are part of reality too: life is bitter/sweet. Blind optimism won't do. But neither will a wholesale rejection of life in this world. And so the Teacher urges us,
"Go eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do."
So all those activities we mentioned earlier – work, family life, leisure - are legitimate. But if we do them without reference to God, we will have nothing but vanity and emptiness to look back on when we come to the end of our lives.
There can be joy in eating and drinking, verse 7. There can be pleasure in being well presented and caring for the physical body. We're not talking about gluttony, or catwalk fashions, or habitual pampering. We're talking about a balanced appreciation of the good things in life. There can be joy in marriage, verse 9. Marriage involves sacrifice, but also brings blessings, for individuals and for society. We're not to make an idol of marriage or idealise it, but neither are we to reject it.
As we live out ordinary life, we're to realise we live it in the sight of God. We should live wholeheartedly, as we see in verse 10
"Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might , for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom."
Your life is appointed by God; it's not an accident, but neither is it forever, so make the most of it. And for the Christian, who sees life in the light of Jesus coming into the world, we can compare this with Jesus' own words
"As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work." (John 9.4)
There is a need for us to live with urgency to carry out God's will, and to spread the gospel. Not only is life short, but the gospel age itself, when the good news is available to be heard, will come to an end.
Before we turn to the final section of the chapter, we will read through and briefly comment on verses 11 and 12
"I have seen something else under the sun:
The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favour to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.
Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come:
As fish are caught in a cruel net,
or birds are taken in a snare,
so people are trapped by evil times
that fall unexpectedly upon them."
So having considered the reality of death, the Teacher gives something else to think about. He says that our abilities will not guarantee us a good and prosperous life. The reason, at the end of verse 11, is that 'time and chance happen to us all'. Over time, our powers diminish. And 'chance' meaning the unexpected, can afflict us at any time through illness, injury, relationship problems, and everything else that befalls us in this life. The phrase 'evil times' covers both afflictions and death.
But let's remember our first verse with its picture of the ultimate security of the righteous. In the trials and afflictions of life, Christians know we are in God's hands. We have a God who tells us 'I know your sufferings, your sorrows.' He is not distant. In the days of Moses, God led his people through the wilderness, and was present with them in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. And in the days of Jesus, God walked the earth in human form, as a man of sorrows, entering fully into our suffering. Today, the Holy Spirit is the comforter who comes alongside believers in Jesus and strengthens us.
The forgotten value of wisdom v13-18
"I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me: There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siege works against it. Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. So I said, "Wisdom is better than strength." But the poor man's wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded.
The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded
than the shouts of a ruler of fools.
Wisdom is better than weapons of war,
but one sinner destroys much good."
Again, there is encouragement here balanced by realism. The encouragement is that the little person can make a difference by showing wisdom in a difficult situation. In the story, everything seems to be hopeless for the small city. The victory of this powerful king is just a matter of time. But a deliverer steps forward. He is poor, but he's also wise. God uses the humble.
We know God uses little people in the church, because Paul tells the Corinthian church 'Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.' God chose them for His own reasons. He builds his church out of nobodies, in fact worse than nobodies, sinners, because that brings him glory.
A prominent Christian lady was asked, 'Who is the greatest Christian woman in the world today?' Her answer was, 'We don't know her name. She's living out her life unrecognised in India.' Christians don't need to be famous; we need to be faithful.
In the Teacher's story, the man is forgotten, and so are his words (end verse 15). The world is more interested in power and glory than wisdom.
Summary and Application
So, are we realistic about death? Realistic enough to live with a balanced appreciation of God's good gifts. If we are, then surely we will also want to face the question of what comes after death. Do we dare to believe that this life is all that there is? Or will we respond to our God given intuition that there has to be more to life?
Hebrews 9:27 gives this warning
"…it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment…"
The reason we fill our time with distractions to keep from thinking about death is related to our unwillingness to think about judgment. Thinking about death is morbid, we say. Lighten up. Someone told me just yesterday that it's no good trying to think about life too much, because that just creates problems. But as I said to him, the other side of that is that if we simply distract ourselves from the deep questions, we will miss what's most important. And the fact that we will stand before a holy and almighty God and answer for all we've thought, said and done, is of the greatest importance. And we avoid this fact because we know what the verdict will be: guilty.
But that's not the only important fact for us to deal with tonight. I'm going to quote that same verse from Hebrews again, but this time the whole of verse the verse, and the next verse as well:
"And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him."
Are you eagerly waiting for Jesus? If you are, then death has no hold over you. As we read in 1 Corinthians 15
"O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?"
For the Christian, death died when Jesus died on the cross. And when Christians die, we will be with Jesus in Paradise. As he told the man crucified beside, the man who repented of his sins
"Today you will be with me in Paradise."
And as Paul writes, when Jesus returns, his people will 'bear the image of the man of heaven', and like Jesus, we'll be raised from the dead.
If you are not eagerly waiting for Jesus, then what do you have to look forward to? Are you satisfied to say, 'Let's eat and drink, because tomorrow we will die'? If you've not yet bowed to Jesus as Lord, can I ask you to listen to this final promise from Jesus himself, from John 6.37:
…whoever comes to me I will never drive away…
He is kind and compassionate. He is strong and has power over death. That means that whoever you are, and whatever you've done, if you come to him, and ask him to forgive you, he will – and he can. And then, you will be able to face anything life brings. You'll even be able to face death, because Christians do die, as the Teacher has told us, but the sting of death has been taken away. And that means ever-lasting life with Jesus and his people. No more suffering. No more sorrow. Only joy.