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In this section things don’t get any rosier than they were in the previous chapter. In fact, I would argue it is even more depressing, especially 9:2-6, probably the darkest section of the book and even perhaps the whole Bible.
Qohelet’s basic argument is that it doesn’t matter whether you are a good or an evil person, a lover or a hater, religious or irreligious: everyone is going to die and there is no reward for how we lived ‘under the sun’. It’s worse than that, because the human heart is full of evil and madness – which explains why the world is so horrible and there is such suffering here.
Still, he states, it’s better to be alive than dead (in contrast to what he said before in 4:2), because at least you can know something when you’re alive, even if what you know is that you’re going to die. But the dead have nothing, no love or hate or anything that exists, for all time; not even the memory of the dead lasts.
In 9:7-10 there is a small shift towards positivity, but it doesn’t last long. Echoing the hint of God’s providential sovereignty in 9:1, Qohelet challenges his readers to go, eat and drink, with joy and in a good heart. The white clothes and oil-anointed head are about living as if life is good, not like you’re in mourning. He also advises considering this life which is given with your spouse (Hebrew has ‘wife’) whom you love, but again reminds the reader that this life is hebel: devoid of purpose or substance. While you are alive you may as well work and think and know, because after you die you will have none of these.
In this context, can we really enjoy life? Is Qohelet being sarcastic? Or is it a genuine charge to enjoy what we have while we have it, because it is not going to last? How should we respond to such depression? First of all, I would suggest, just sit with it. Sit with Qohelet. Sit with your friend who is also struggling in the darkness of despair. Sit with the sense that life has no purpose or meaning and is not going anywhere. See that the righteous and the good and the religious suffers and dies just the same as the wicked and the sinner and the atheist; God does not protect one more than the other from coronavirus or tsunami or cyclone. And in this context, be thankful for and enjoy the good things you have: food, drink, a spouse or friend, life itself.
And now, think of the areas where you disagree with Qohelet. Is the memory of the perished forgotten? No, we remember them and others will remember us. Are there no wages for the dead? Other passages of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, argue otherwise (eg Ps 49:10-15; Dan 12:2; Matt 5-6; Rom 6:23; 1 Cor 3:14). Is my enjoyment in this present life all I live for? No, not only is there reward in the afterlife, but I live for the enjoyment and service of others, particularly the Lord Jesus (cf Col 3:17, which I am strongly reminded of when I read Ecc 9:10). Jesus himself did not look with despair at his short life, which began and ended with suffering, but rather ran his race for the joy set before him (Heb 12:2). He felt anguish, sure, to the point of sweating blood, but he was faithful to the task to which he was called. He, not Qohelet, is the author and perfecter of our faith.
Prayer: Lord God, sometimes when I look on this life, full of my and others’ suffering, I am tempted to despair. And yet, I am alive, and I can rejoice and be thankful in this. Help me to live not for myself, but for others and especially for you. You are the one who gives my life meaning.