1 But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. 2 It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. 4 But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. 6 Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 9:1-6 ESV
There’s little doubt that Solomon embraced the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. He sincerely believed that the lives of all men were in the hands of God, whether they were righteous, wicked, good, or bad. His view was that God acted as the divine arbiter over the fate of all, including their lives and inevitable deaths, leaving man no option but to make the most of the days he had been allotted to him by God. But this view of God’s sovereignty has a feeling of resignation and resentment to it.
Solomon clearly states that “the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God,” but he doesn’t come across as all that pleased about it. In fact, he appears to view God’s sovereignty as some kind of divine whim, where God metes out love and hate as He sees fit. Solomon almost paints it as an arbitrary decision on God’s part, lacking any kind of reasoned explanation or excuse. He puts it this way: “Even though the actions of godly and wise people are in God’s hands, no one knows whether God will show them favor” (Ecclesiastes 9:1 NLT).
In other words, from man’s earth-bound perspective, he can never know if God is going to show him favor or disfavor. If good things happen, it is the will of God. If bad things happen, those too are the will of God. That appears to be his somewhat pessimistic conclusion regarding God’s sovereignty.
As far as Solomon can tell, all people share the same fate. They all die.
The same destiny ultimately awaits everyone… – Ecclesiastes 9:2 NLT
There is nothing ahead but death anyway. – Ecclesiastes 9:3 NLT
And even while they remain alive, they all experience their fair share of ups and downs, blessings and curses, and successes and failures. And he points out that it really doesn’t seem to matter how you live your life. He compares the righteous with the wicked, the good with those who commit evil, the ceremonially clean with the ceremonially impure, and finally, the one who offers sacrifices to God with the one who does not. The individuals represented in these polarized comparisons all face death at the end of their lives, and the sole determiner of the day of their death is God. And Solomon expresses his opinion about the matter, concluding, “It seems so wrong that everyone under the sun suffers the same fate.” (Ecclesiastes 9:3 NLT).
Solomon viewed death as a kind of divine exclamation point at the end of man’s life, ending any hope of experiencing joy and fulfillment. And it was that belief that led him to write: “It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion!” (Ecclesiastes 9:4 NLT). From his perspective, it was better to remain alive, even if you had to struggle with the apparent injustices of life. Solomon clearly saw life as preferable to death.
There is hope only for the living. – Ecclesiastes 9:4 NLT
The living at least know they will die, but the dead know nothing. They have no further reward, nor are they remembered. Whatever they did in their lifetime—loving, hating, envying—is all long gone. They no longer play a part in anything here on earth. – Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 NLT
Solomon has made it clear that this life can be difficult and meaningless. Here, he states, “the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live” (Ecclesiastes 9:3 ESV). Men do evil things. They commit acts of violence against one another. They oppress and abuse one another. And yet, Solomon would prefer to put up with all that than face the final day of death. Because, as far as he could see, that day had a ring of finality to it.
Do you see how he views death? He sees it as an end, almost as a form of divine penalty doled out by God on all who have ever lived. It’s as if he’s saying that life is this hit or miss, futility-filled existence, completely dictated by God, and then it suddenly comes to a screeching, abrupt end – all based on God’s divine determination. It’s no wonder he preferred life over death. For him, whatever existed beyond the grave was unattractive and undesirable. As far as he could tell, the destiny that awaits us on the other side of death was unknowable and, therefore, unwelcome. Concerning those who die: “Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:6 ESV).
Those are the words of a man who sees this life as the only source of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. In fact, Solomon expresses a belief that the only way God can bless human beings is through the physical pleasures associated with life on this planet. He saw man’s identity as completely tied to his earthly existence. All rewards were relegated to this life and this plane of existence. There was nothing beyond the grave. And it is that worldview that dictates the decision-making of virtually every person who occupies this planet – unless they have a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Yes, there are other religions that teach the existence of an afterlife where there are rewards. But Christianity is particularly future-oriented, placing the real emphasis on mankind’s existence not in this world, but in the one to come. Our reward awaits us in eternity, not on this earth. That doesn’t mean God withholds blessings from His children while they remain alive, but that His greatest reward lies in the future. Jesus confirmed this idea in His sermon on the mount.
“Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.” – Matthew 6:19-21 NLT
The apostle Paul shared the same future-oriented mindset. He had his eyes set on an eternal reward, his glorification that was tied to the return of Christ.
…but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. – Philippians 3:13-14 NLT
The author of Hebrews also provides us with powerful words of encouragement, using Jesus as an example of the way in which we should live while we remain on this earth.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. – Hebrews 12:1-2 NLT
Jesus suffered. He knew what it was like to endure rejection, ridicule, injustice, and oppression. He even endured the pain of the cross, knowing that it was all part of God’s divine will for His life. It was a necessary part of the redemptive plan God had put in place before the foundation of the world. Jesus ran the race of life with endurance, keeping His eyes focused on doing His Father’s will of God and the promise of His future glorification. And now He sits in the place of honor beside His Father’s throne.
And the apostle Paul would have us remember that, as followers of Jesus Christ, we face a similar reward.
For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 NLT
Regardless of what Solomon believed, there is something beyond the grave. Not only does an afterlife exist, but it also holds blessings beyond anything we can imagine. Solomon accurately described the pain, suffering, oppression, and injustice inherent in this life, but the Scriptures promise that these things will not exist in the afterlife. For those who place their faith in Jesus Christ, eternity awaits with a life free from pain, suffering, sin, sorrow, and the looming threat of death. John writes of this wonderful reality in his book of Revelation.
I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” – Revelation 21:3-4 NLT
Solomon was a wise man, but he reveals his inability to comprehend the ways of God. Over the years, he had developed an earth-based, temporal perspective that limited the sovereignty of God to the here and now. He saw life as an end-all, which explains his obsession with experiencing all that life had to offer. And when he couldn’t find what he was looking for in this life, he deemed it all meaningless, like chasing the wind. But what he failed to see was that God had much more in store. The best was yet to come.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.