There’s a famous saying that goes that in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except two things: death and taxes. Don’t worry we won’t be talking about taxes, but you might not be that excited about that other thing either which is death. But we know like the quote goes that death is certain. At some point in our lives, unless the Lord comes back very soon, we will all experience death. It’s a given. You can count on it. You don’t want to, as it is a horrible thing. But it’s an unavoidable, unfortunate truth of life in this fallen world that death entered the world and has consumed everyone ever since the Fall.

But how are we going to meet death? We hope it’s quick and painless after a long, fulfilling life, but we really don’t get to decide that do we? It could happen at any time we put ourselves in that 4,000-pound metal coffin that we call “a car,” starting the engine which essentially happens from a controlled explosion, the mixing of air and fuel with a spark, and driving into Atlanta traffic full of crazy Atlanta drivers.

You do realize that operating that thing and surviving requires a lot of faith, don’t you? Driving in some other countries might require even more faith! Or if you prefer, a “flying metal coffin,” which is what a friend of mine calls airplanes. Maybe it’ll be from illness, cancer, a tragic accident, natural disaster, murder, snake bite, starvation, or old age; the list goes on. I don’t mean to make light of death; I just said those things in those ways because I want you to think about how death could happen to us at any time and might be closer than you may think. Nor do I mean to make you overly fearful and morbid about death, or go run out to buy more expensive life insurance! I do so because in our passage today, it’s all about death and how unpredictable it can be in our lives. And we live in a society that sanitizes death, unlike previous generations where it was very likely that we would watch someone pass away and in our own homes. We now live in a generation with better medical care; death is often ushered away in sterile environments with white sheets like hospitals and hospices. We live in a world that tries everything to make us forget about death, to deny it with endless novelties, gadgets, entertainment, so there is no time for the sobering truth of death to really sink in until it suddenly surprises us at our doorstep, but it was really around us all this time. Or perhaps it fills you with fear, and you do everything you can stop it: buying anti-aging creams and serums, reading up on antioxidant-rich foods, trying to find new recipes so you can somehow stomach more kale!

The Preacher here in this passage wants us to be aware of the certainty of death and the unpredictability of life, or rather to put it in another way, that death, time, and chance happen all of us. Yet his curious response to these things and instruction for us is not one of fear or denial but one of joy and contentment. But before we get to the joy, we have to first look at death.

Death For All (Ecclesiastes 9:1-3a)

Qohelet starts about talking about this evil in v.3, this event that happens to all and then tells us what it is in v.4: death. Death. Death happens to all he says. And before that, he says that death does not pick favorites. Death operates on a non-discrimination policy. You see this in v.2 with 6 couplets, it doesn’t matter if you’re righteous or wicked, good or evil, clean or unclean, someone who makes sacrifices (I assuming sacrifices made to God here in this passage) or one who doesn’t, saint or sinner, an oath keeper or one who shuns them. It doesn’t matter in regards to this event of death because it happens to all. It doesn’t matter how morally good you are; you cannot ward off death, it will find you.

I know that this isn’t news for anyone here, we all know this so why is this important to know? Because we can forget that death is looming for all of us and that has a profound impact on how we spend our days here on earth. We can forget that our days are numbered …. Now these verses aren’t not saying is that righteousness, goodness, oath keeping are worthless because we’re all going to die, and that there aren’t consequences to sinful living, it’s simply saying that these things will not keep the inevitable from happening, that death is certain and comes for all.

A Living Dog is Better (Ecclesiastes 9:3b-6)

But then the Preacher makes it a point to say that the living have it better than the dead. That a “living dog is better than a dead lion.” That seems like an odd analogy at first, doesn’t it? As much we love and pamper our pets, dogs were not as lovable in ancient societies. They were often considered dirty, unclean, mangy street roamers without much value. The lion, on the other hand, was a powerful, majestic animal. For example, Jacob in Genesis 49:9 called his son Judah a “young lion” and gave his tribe the symbol of a lion when he blessed him. But hey, better alive than dead right? Being a lion doesn’t do you much good when you’re dead, and if you’re only a dog, at least you’re counted among the living!

But wait a minute! Didn’t Qohelet say before in this book that it is better to be dead than alive? Yes, back in Ecclesiastes 4:2 he says and then says it is even better to not be born at all! We have to see that this is actually a different situation. The Teacher back in chap. 4 was lamenting over all the injustice and oppression he saw in the world which is why he says such things. Here, living is better than dying because they have hope and know that death is coming (v.4-5) whereas, for the dead, they are gone, they have perished, their work is no more, their experience of what life has to offer is no more. Now’s a good time as any to stop and think, “right now God has still graciously given me life in this world, am I ready for death if God would call me home tomorrow?” Are you ready to meet God now? Part of what a pastor is supposed to do is teach others how to live according to God’s Word but what we’re also supposed to do is to help prepare you for death. As you examine yourself now, if your heart is troubled at the reality of death, I invite you to come talk to me over email.  Or maybe what this should have us think about is what are those important things to do, important conversations to have while you still have time before death. What are those important matters in your life that you are delaying on when they could be settled? Things you don’t want to have regrets about when you’re on your deathbed? Maybe it’s time to face them now before time runs out.

The Unpredictability of Life (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12)

V.7-10 is the joyful and happy part, but since we’re already in a somber, gloomy mood, let’s come back to that later than go first to other evil that the Preacher talks about. If this were a sandwich and v.7-10 is the meat, v.11-12 is like the other unsavory crusty bread rind.

After talking about the certainty of death in v.1-6, here in v.11-12, the Preacher talks about the unpredictability of life. As I said in the beginning of the article, what’s certain is death, but what is not certain is how this calamity may come upon us in our lives. Here like in v.1-3 we see another list of comparisons topped off with animal metaphors at the end. Qohelet observes at this life is unpredictable. He’s tried his best with all his wisdom to figure out the logic, rhythms, patterns, of this world but in the end, life can defy all of that and wrecks our precious plans. He says, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.” And then he likens it to fish and birds going about their daily business, and then suddenly they’re caught in a net or a trap, and their lives are over. He says we are the same, “time and chance happen to us all…” but we do not know our time. If you think about it, we can spend all of our lives setting up for other things we want in life. We say that those with wisdom, intelligence and knowledge will bring home more bacon, so we spend our time on education. Or maybe its power and strength that we want and so we spend our time and money on acquiring that so we can win in life, whatever that means for us. Or whatever it might be that we try to plan, schedule, position ourselves, control our given situations to get our desired results in life but Qohelet says, “you don’t know your time, you don’t know when your time is up, or how it will come. You don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”

Hear what James 4:13-17 has to say about all of that: “Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”- yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”

Again I’m not trying to be excessively morbid, like you I have hopes and dreams myself, and I’m sure a lot of them are similar. Maybe it’s family oriented, like getting married, having children, seeing them grow up, marry them off, play with grandchildren. Maybe it’s a fulfilling career, making a huge impact in your field of work and study, all the things you want to do once you finally have that graduate degree. These are good and worthy things, and I hope those things will happen for you. But you just don’t know… life is unpredictable, and we cannot control everything. We do not know what tomorrow might bring. And so in sight of the temporal nature of life, that is passing away before our eyes, the psalmist says in Psalm 90:12, “so teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” You see what this passage does in our lives, is that it goes to war against how much we love to be in control of our lives. It’s not wrong to plan. It’s not wrong to have these kinds of good dreams. But you don’t know. Like what James says or the psalmist says, you don’t know what God will have for you tomorrow.

Enjoy Your God-Given Life (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10)

Now that these passages have sufficiently taken away all of our joy and left us glum and moreso let’s look at the last section in v.7-10. So I like you, I’m thinking, “Ok, you’ve convinced me to accept that my death is coming and is inevitable no matter who I am or what I’ve done, and you’ve sufficiently reminded me that life is completely unpredictable. What am I supposed to do with that? Live in a cave? Wear Kevlar to work? Buy more insurance?” Instead of having a pessimistic view of life or living in a fatalistic way, Qohelet calls us to joy v.7-10! There’s actually a theme of him saying this all over the book. One commentator, I read called Ecclesiastes a book unified by the theme of “God-given joy.”[1] I said to myself, “you have got to be kidding me! There’s so much in here that seems so pessimistic and depressing.” But I’m starting to see he may be onto something! Let’s take a glance at some of these, I count at least 5 of these joy passages:

Passages that are similar or have similar themes to 9:1-12:

Ecc. 2:24-25 “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?”

Ecc. 3:12-13 “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil- that is God’s gift to man.”

Ecc. 3:16-22- Comparing human death to animal death, he says death happens to both, both return to the one place, all return to dust, we have no advantage over the animals. Then he ends with 4:22 “So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?”

Ecc. 5:18-20- “Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.”

Ecc. 8:15- “And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.”

And now in a similar way, the Preacher returns to this theme in v.7-10. He says we are to enjoy our lives! He mentions at least 4 specific things: 1) Bread and wine in v.7. 2) Garments and oil in v.8. 3) Your wife (spouse) in v.9 and then your work (toil) in v.9-10. Two things I want you to notice in this passage. First, just like the other similar passages in Ecclesiastes, Qohelet commends us to do these things with joy. Eat your bread with joy, drink your wine with a merry heart. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love. What about the part about oils and white garments? Well, these are actually pointing to what people of that time would do and wear during times of celebration! Unlike Chinese and Japanese culture where wearing white is a grieving and mourning color. Clean white garments were expensive and reserved only for the most special of occasions, and the same was true for perfumes and oils.[2] So rather living in gloom and doom, the Preacher is actually calling us to be festive in celebration, eating, drinking, with clothes and oils fit for the best celebrations.

So firstly, we are to enjoy our lives, to live with joy, and secondly I want us to notice the word “your,” your food, your clothes, your wife, your toil. This is getting at what we have already. This is about enjoying what belongs to us, or rather what has been given to us from God. This is not about searching, reaching, and grasping for what is not yours. He is saying, “enjoy what God has already given you. Enjoy your life, your work, your spouse, your meals, enjoy all of your God-given days, with your God-given family, with your God-given food.” The fitting word for that is “contentment” as we have often said in Ecclesiastes. But you might ask, “What if I don’t have a spouse? Or what if I am currently without work? What am I supposed to do with that?” True, you may not have those things, God in all his love and wisdom has chosen not to give you those things in this season of life. But are you enjoying and having contentment with what God has given you? It’s actually more than contentment as if that were a “resting” thing, but here in this passage, we see an active, joyful use and stewardship of all the blessings God has given us.

But Will You Live? Will There Be Joy?

But we can’t stop there; something still rings hollow in these verses. You ask me, “How can you just conjure up joy like that? You’ve painted this picture of doom and gloom. The dark clouds of death and untimely demise surround this passage; this joy doesn’t seem to measure up to those dark, scary things. How is my food, family, work, supposed to make me happy when those things are still in the air?”

Like you, I was struggling with this as I was studying this passage. I was thinking, “that sounds awfully like a “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die” kind of thing.” This sounds more like numbing the pain which is what nonbelievers accuse religion of or hedonism which is completely secular. And you’re right; death is still there. It’s been here ever since the Fall. Ever since God made Adam and Eve in the Garden to enjoy each other, to work and keep, to be fruitful and multiply, to enjoy the fruit of the ground but all of that was cursed because of sin.

It’s what you and I experience now. It’s what you and I know so well in these days in the passing of our loved ones. Yet our God had a plan to redeem us and his creation; He promised us a Redeemer. One that would reverse that curse of Adam’s Fall, the last Adam who would bring life where the first Adam’s failure meant death, and that’s Jesus! Jesus came to redeem us and redeem this fallen world. He came knowing that he would suffer and die and yet that didn’t mean he lived in a fatalistic way, the Gospels say the Son of Man came eating and drinking. He worked as a carpenter in his earthly life which is what others called him in Mark 6. And then as part of his obedience to God, he met death, a gruesome death on the cross at what many would consider a young age. But that wasn’t all, because unlike everyone that died before him, Jesus actually rose from the dead and he taught that his death actually accomplished something wonderful. It saved us from our sins, and that we in Him would be conquerors of death. And because of his death for us, eternal life with God is where we will enjoy the everlasting pleasures of God in the New Heavens, and Earth as the passage we read earlier says (Isa. 65:17-19, 21-23). And this is what is coming for you and me, and for all those that put their trust in Jesus Christ.

And so enjoying our lives as the Preacher calls us to in this passage, is not just secular, hedonistic thing. In fact, I would argue because Jesus is our Lord and Redeemer, we ought to be the ones that know how to live. True Christianity doesn’t mean we live as ascetics that purposely shun created things and pleasures as if that were higher spirituality. True Christianity is thanking God for what He has given us in sex, food, work, and enjoying them to His glory. We know death is coming, but we are comforted knowing that we are in God’s hands as it says in verse 1. We know as those that have been saved by Christ, we have been accepted by God, and He approves of what we do (v.7) so we can enjoy this life and what God has given us, doing it with joy, with contentment, making the most of it, knowing that God is with us, his hand is upon us, and knowing what greater life awaits us with Christ in heaven that we only see in mere shadows and portrayals here of the everlasting life with Him.

You know a wise man once told me that, “God gives everyone a can of peaches, but to the Christian, he gives a can opener.” So everyone dies, but you… all those of you who have met and trusted Jesus… will you live?

[1] Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Coping with Change: Ecclesiastes, (Ross-shire, Christian Focus: 2013), 57.

[2] Philip Graham Ryken, Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, Preaching the Word, ed. R. Kent Hughes. (Wheaton, Crossway: 2010), 214.