This, too, I carefully explored: Even though the actions of godly and wise people are in God’s hands, no one knows whether God will show them favor. The same destiny ultimately awaits everyone, whether righteous or wicked, good or bad, ceremonially clean or unclean, religious or irreligious. Good people receive the same treatment as sinners, and people who make promises to God are treated like people who don’t.
It seems so wrong that everyone under the sun suffers the same fate. Already twisted by evil, people choose their own mad course, for they have no hope. There is nothing ahead but death anyway. There is hope only for the living. As they say, “It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion!”
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. So go ahead. Eat your food with joy, and drink your wine with a happy heart, for God approves of this! Wear fine clothes, with a splash of cologne!
Live happily with the woman you love through all the meaningless days of life that God has given you under the sun. The wife God gives you is your reward for all your earthly toil. Whatever you do, do well. For when you go to the grave, there will be no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom.
I have observed something else under the sun. The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time. People can never predict when hard times might come. Like fish in a net or birds in a trap, people are caught by sudden tragedy. (Ecclesiastes 9:1-12, NLT)
Chapter 9 begins with one more reminder that death levels the playing field, whether one is rich or poor, righteous or unrighteous. Qoheleth seems to feel that this is an unfair reality, as if to say that God is unjust in giving the righteous the same final outcome as the wicked.
The application of his own observation, therefore, is to enjoy life and make the most of it now while you can. While you’re alive you should eat your food and drink your wine with joy. Outwardly express your optimism by dressing up and smelling nice! If you’re married and have a family, enjoy them as a present oasis in the desert of despair. And finally, find dignity in your vocation, whatever it is, and do your work to the best of your ability. Death will come to each one of us at the end of our lives, but death doesn’t have to spoil the years we have prior to life’s conclusion. Don’t waste your time comparing yourself to prior generations, because “a live dog is better than a dead lion!”
Speaking of making comparisons, we also need to stop comparing ourselves to our contemporaries. The Preacher reminds us that we don’t have to be the fastest, the strongest or the smartest to have a meaningful life. Not everyone can claim those titles so we shouldn’t necessarily spend our energy on attaining them. After all, more is obtained through self discipline than by reading motivational posters.
Here at the beginning of the New Year, Qoheleth’s advice is especially helpful. We can set and pursue grandiose goals for bigger, better and more. But perhaps the best goals are the consistent and daily steps toward character development. It was Jesus who taught us that life’s greatest pursuit was to be good. (cf. Matthew 5-7) Endeavoring to be good and do good things requires a moral dimension that is not always requisite for greatness. If you can handle the responsibility that comes from greatness, go for it. But don’t invalidate goodness. Our world could use more goodness than greatness anyway.
While we can’t predict adversity any more than the proverbial fish can predict the drop of a fisherman’s net, we can prepare for it. We cannot let our losses overshadow the positive things we still have and the potential that is yet to come. For many like me, the year 2020 represented losses that felt like death. But 2021 revealed a resurrection to a new life that is better than ever could ever be imagined. It is Seneca who is credited with the saying, “Every new beginning comes from another beginning’s end.” God has a way of redeeming what has been lost into something that is so much better we wonder why it felt like a loss in the first place. When God takes from us something that is valuable, he often replaces it with something that is invaluable. But to refuse to move forward would be like Joseph sitting on Egypt’s throne longing to have his multicolored coat back, or David sitting in his palace wishing he could have his sling shot. There are no crowns without crosses. But if we keep moving forward we learn that our crosses aren’t defeats reversed by resurrections, rather our crosses are victories brought by God that are revealed by resurrections.
Here’s to a Happy New Year! The best is yet to come!