From: Ecclesiastes and the Perpetual Paradoxes of Life Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2012
The Paradox of Evil:
Even Though It May Triumph,
It Does Not Have to Crush Us
Neither moral nor political good is guaranteed a victory in shaping either individual character or the nation’s future. Nor can evil be assumed to have it assured either. It could go either way. Which means on some occasions, at least, the unjust, ethically or utilitarian blind, and self-servers gain the upper hand.
But even when social or moral evil seems victorious, a permanent triumph is far from its grasp. Not to mention that even in the hours of its “success,” it does not have to secure the ethical, or spiritual supremacy over our inner selves. That victory can only be obtained if we surrender it.
Flow of the Argument
A. Evil people do not triumph permanently: Since they
also die we should enjoy as much of life as we can
B. No matter how smart we are, we will never discover all
that God does in this current world (-9:1)
C. It is deeply disturbing but it remains true: Anything
can happen to anyone regardless of individual moral
D. Yet so long as there is life there is ground for hope and
reason to live happily and work hard (9:4-12)
A. Evil People Do Not Triumph Permanently:
Since They Also Die We Should Enjoy as Much of
Life As We Can (-15)
On an emotional level the triumph of the oppressor and the perpetuator of injustice is galling. Failure that occurs because of circumstances beyond our control, we do not like but we can understand. Failure because we are the targeted victims (either as individuals or as a class) outrages us because we know it is intentional and malicious. The incapacity of law to right all such wrongs makes it even worse.
But evil triumphs in very different ways as well. The one who has tried to live morally, treat his neighbor equitably, and do fairly by all those he or she has dealings with may suffer economic harm and premature death at the hands of the inanimate world of economics and disease. In contrast the person who has scorned moral scruple may prosper in that same environment.
On an individual level, the person without principles may similarly gain the upper hand. He may run over us, but there is nothing truly personal in the act. He hates neither our gender, race, or ethnicity. We are simply “in the way” of achieving his goal and we must be removed so he can come out on top. In its own way this is just as galling. It is such evil triumphant (whether specifically targeted at us or not) that concerns Solomon in this section.
The basic thrust of reassurance in these verses is that even the victorious evil person must die as well. The reprobate who had once been religious and then left it behind to pursue his evil () lands up forgotten after he is buried. No matter how large a coterie of cheerleaders he or she may have had, no matter how broad the swath of political and economic influence, he no longer counts as anything. No matter how great the praise at his funeral.
He was rather than is. There is a beautiful scene in the musical Scrooge (adapted of course from Charles Dickens’ famous tale) of Ebenezer’s vision of the future: A large crowd is gathered around the front of his house and they are singing that it’s “the greatest thing he ever did for us.” With his back to the crowd, he doesn’t realize that they are carrying his casket out of his home.
[Page 112] The person who has adopted a destructive lifestyle toward self and others is deluded in forgetting this coming death because the months and years seem to go by and none of the deserved retribution comes his way (8:11). Furthermore, since there is no punishment, surely, he can’t be doing anything all that bad can he?
To give the most extreme example, even if a person could actually do a hundred evil things a day and get away with them all, that in no way detracts from the fact that those who have reverential “fear” for God will ultimately be blessed by the Almighty (8:12). Nor will the seemingly numberless evil acts of the wicked allow him to indefinitely avoid his ultimate meeting with death (8:13): His length of “days” (life) will seem to be prolonged (8:12), but still be nowhere near as numerous as if he had lived as he should (8:13).
From one standpoint, it took a long time to reach his due (cf. ), but that doesn’t change the fact that it is coming. He will vanish in death like “a shadow” because he lacked reverential “fear” of God and His standards ().
We have here a very vague concept of death becoming an act of judgment—upon the evil person as punishment for his or her evils and upon the righteous as a reward for faithfulness. It is nebulous and cloudy, but if both die and if one is to look upon death as retribution and one as a blessing, it seems inescapable that Qohelet views death as carrying with it some kind of final reckoning. The nature is not spelled out. Perhaps it was simply that his insight or wisdom demanded that somehow, somewhere there be a final accounting to secure the ultimate equitable treatment of all--even if it did not occur in the current life.
Our suspicions are confirmed in 11:9, when he warns that all behavior will be brought before Divine judgment and in 12:7 when he speaks of the inner person returning to God and that judgment will come upon all (). He doesn’t spell out the details. Quite possibly he had no idea how it all fitted together. Because he was blessed with a knowledge of the truth, did not mean that he necessarily had a full knowledge of the truth.
From an observation of the surrounding world, both king and citizen could well deduce the utilitarian argument against excess --i.e., that even the most successful spree of unhampered dissipation must ultimately come to an end. Unjust corporate and political titans make life miserable for their victims for decades. Their money can buy longer health through a quality and quantity of care that others can not afford. But time and age ultimate catch up to one and all.
And whether Qohelet quickly grasped the point or, more likely, only did so after many years, the important thing is that the reality eventually penetrated his consciousness. And he wanted to use his writing “pulpit” to drive it into the minds of others as well.
Between here and death, however, how are we to emotionally and psychologically deal with the present “now,” the period in which we are suffering and enduring injustice? The simple fact is that virtuous individuals sometimes are treated with the pain due the unjust and the unjust reap the happiness and respect that should be the present state of those who have honorably lived and toiled (8:14). This was, indeed, another absurdity (“vanity”) of life.
Yet we can do little or nothing about it. Rather than shrivel up in despair and hate, the author argues that our “revenge” should be that of enjoying life and [Page 113] not letting others ruins it, “So I commended enjoyment, because a man has nothing better under the sun than to eat, drink, and be merry; for this will remain with him in his labor all the days of his life which God gives him under the sun” (8:15).
There is the modern day adage that we can’t control what other people do, but only how we react to it. That is the insight that Qohelet also develops: You can’t stop the injustice of life, but you certainly can—within the limits of your opportunity and finances—mock it by enjoying the good times that do come your way. Since you will die with a clear conscience, it isn’t you who has to worry about your ultimate judgment by God.
B. No Matter How Smart we Are, We Will Never Discover All that God Does in
This Current World (-9:1)
How does God work in the current world? Some claim He acts miraculously (a difficult claim to square with the cessation of the miraculous spoken of in 1 Corinthians 13:8-10), while others claim He intervenes “providentially.” Perhaps a better distinction would be between the overt miraculous (the person who has been blind since birth mysteriously has sight granted within seconds) versus the covert miraculous (where we find God’s purposes obtained in such an “indirect” manner that it is impossible to put our finger on the exact point or manner whereby He accomplished it).
However you define it, the kingly author saw things that he could not help but attribute to forces that could only be Divine. So he struggled day and night and even without sleep (8:16) until he finally gave up and recognized that though a person—even the smartest person—works at it indefinitely, he is still not going to be able to figure out the manner whereby God intervenes (8:17). He can see the evidence but not the method. All he could finally do was, in effect, shrug his shoulders and simply admire that one and all are ultimately “in the hand of God” and that no one will ever fully grasp even “simple” things like “love” and “hatred” (9:1).
Yet we do not find the slightest overtone of despair here. Earthly mysteries he has repeated expressed frustration over (injustice, disrespect of the poor, unpunished corrupt individuals, etc.). But when it comes to plummeting the mysteries of the Divine, he recognizes that the wisest mortal is out of his league.
In this section we have the clear voice of personal experience, “When I applied my heart” (). He had tried and failed. And that is true of the rest of us. We may grasp a reason for something happening or being allowed to happen, but we would be arrogant, indeed, to claim that we have done much more than touched the bare edges of the explanation.
C. It Is Deeply Disturbing, but It Remains True:
Anything Can Happen to Anyone Regardless of Individual Moral Character (9:2-3)
By a series of comparisons in 9:2, Qohelet stresses the absurd reality that anything that happens to the bad person may happen to the good, to the pious and the impious, to the person of integrity and the one who doesn’t care about such things at all. Part of our (and his) mind argues that this “should” not be, but the rest acknowledges that it “is.”
Whether in our lives or his it was a lesson that is most often gained by experience rather than theorizing: we see it happen and it is that grim reality that strips away the delusions of our abstract theories of how the world should function. If wise, it no more replaces the hope for improvement in our minds than it does his, but it forces us to recognize the supremacy of reality over any theoretical scheme.
He brands the fact that the same thing can happen to one and all as “an evil” (9:3). And it is—or at least seems such. What else could one call it that this is the way of life in our world? Would we be foolish enough to call it a positive, a “good” thing?
Yet with sin pervasive and the necessity of working within the human freedom to choose either good or evil, it is an inevitable result of life as we know it. To demand “perfection” and anything approaching “absolute justice” in the current life is nothing short of delusional. But that does not mean one has to embrace that radical imperfection as a positive good. Only to recognize that this is how things actually are.
While striving to make things better, we should never fall into the utopian fantasy that what we create will ever be perfect. A reality that moral and political reformers should always keep in mind.
D. Yet So Long As There Is Life There Is Ground
for Hope and Reason to Live Happily
and Work Hard (9:4-12)
[Page 115] In this section, the king returns to a theme he has touched on earlier: since it is inevitable that you are going to die, don’t despair but enjoy the blessings of the current world. Even the much despised dog (for such were they viewed in ancient Hebrew society) was better off being alive than the highly esteemed “regal” lion if it were dead.
From the human, rather than animal perspective, this truism is also valid. After all, once they perish, the dead have no ability to earn further “reward” by their actions in this world (9:5). Their loves, hatreds, and envies have “perished” with their life and never again will they have the opportunity to enjoy or inflict either in this temporal world (9:6).
The writer is not providing some elaborate theology of the afterlife: usually 9:5 is introduced in vindication of the theory that there is no life beyond the current one. That is far from his intent; his emphasis is not on what is (or is not) in the next world. His point is that in regard to the current world is all over—permanently. To the degree this has any relationship at all to life after death (either pro or con), its only relevance might be as a denial of the doctrine of reincarnation. That would undermine Qohelet’s point.
If one insists upon an application to the future life, it would mean (to make it consistent with other passages, especially in the New Testament) that they have no knowledge at all or impact on events in this life. They are sealed off from learning about the world they left—just as we are sealed off from personal knowledge of their world.
More properly, Solomon should be viewed as looking upon death observationally rather than theologically. As Donald C. Fleming observes both “the context (or one look at a corpse) makes the meaning obvious. The dead can no longer join in the everyday activities of life.” He is strictly speaking of what we can see with our eyes; not the world that exists beyond our observation.
Even so, one should eat one’s bread and drink one’s drink with joy because we know that “God has already accepted your works” as honorable and praiseworthy (9:7). The idea of laziness, indulgence and drunkenness is the furthest thing from his mind: rather, it is to fully enjoy the good fruit that results from one’s hard labor and toil.
Having emphasized such enjoyment he, in effect, offers an intercessory prayer that the white “garments” of their lives always reflect their purity and that their head “lack no oil” of divine blessing (9:8). These are moral applications of observable physical phenomena. “The value of white clothes in a hot climate was widely known,” observes James L. Crenshaw, “and the frequent application of oils to combat the deleterious effect of dry heat on skin was widely practiced by those who could afford it.”
But life is more than food and drink. At the same time, one should life “joyfully” and with “love” toward one’s spouse “all the days” that remain in life (9:9). This emphasis on “love” (and its implication of love in all its senses, including sexual) seems quite modern, although not unknown in some other texts (Song of Solomon 8:7). After all in that era (and even in much of the world today), the situation is one of arranged marriages in which calculated self and family interest is [Page 116] dominant. Yet even in that context, it was the ideal for love to evolve in all its senses.
That is what both marriage partners deserve (= “for that is your portion in life”) and should be counted as a blessing of the hard work (“labor”) in which we are engaged while alive (9:9). Other astute ancients also accepted the need for such pleasures to relieve the burdens and obligations of life. In the very ancient story of Gilgamesh (c. 2000 B.C.), he is urged, “You, Gilgamesh, fill your belly, enjoy by day and by night. Celebrate a joyful feast every day. Day and night, you must dance and play! Let your garments be brightly colored, wash your hair, bathe in water. Attend to the little one [= children] who takes your hand. Let your wife take delight in your bosom!”
Just as we should play and love passionately, we should work with similar enthusiasm. “Whatever” it is that we work on we should do it with all our “might” for afterwards the opportunity is lost (). Nothing that happens in Sheol will affect this life nor alter the mistakes we made while in the flesh. For our praise or our condemnation, the Divine judgment on our conduct will be based on what was done in the here and now and not our sorrow or tears of regret afterwards.
Our odds of earthly success may be modest, but all he has had to say about the uncertainties of life apply here—nothing is a foregone conclusion, “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding, nor favor to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all” (9:11). “Time and chance” modify the “inevitability” of both our successes and our failures. Neither is written in stone.
The passing of months and years (“time”) and “chance” (those unplanned and unexpected events that occur) will modify and even alter the “inevitability” of both our successes and our failures. Neither anonymous and unbendable Fate nor God Himself has written them in stone; He has left the door of our future open for both triumph and disappointment.
The odds are that the swift will win and that the skilled will triumph over the amateur, but there is no guarantee of it. In that fact lies hope for every one else and humility for the one who is “supposed” to prevail.
Furthermore, bad times will come as sure as the good and in those we will have no more chance of success than a fish attempting to escape a net or a bird a snare (9:12). Hence those opportunities must be grabbed when and where they occur. They may not repeat themselves. At least not soon enough to benefit us.
These were the things Qohelet could discover by perceptive observation, as can we. Yet in a very real sense, this section is designed not so much to reveal how he felt he should live but how he recognized others should. After all, he was already monarch and already had all the blessings of life. The most he could do was to provide the generalizations that he had found valid for those not as blessed as he. (And for those who might aspire to take his place!)
It is especially intriguing to consider what 9:9 meant from his perspective, “Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of your vain life which He has given you under the sun, all your days of vanity; for that is your portion in life, and in the labor which you perform under the sun.”
[Page 117] Note the singular “wife.” The right to practice polygamy is referred to in various Old Testament texts. Yet the singular (i.e., one) wife argues that for most people all that was abstract theory. Most were in monogamous marriages no matter what theoretically might be allowed.
From Solomon’s standpoint, one can’t help but suspect that there was a bittersweet overtone to such an observation. With his multitude of wives, could he have developed such a close relationship with more than a few, if that many? Respect, courtesy, and even affection, of course. But anything approaching a depth of love? Most unlikely. These were relationships that the common person could enjoy that even a king might not.
Of course, he doesn’t say any such thing explicitly. After all, he was king and there was such a matter as royal pride. Yet it is hard to avoid the deep suspicion that the thought crossed his mind upon more than one occasion of those blessings that came upon “the common man” but were elusive or unreachable for himself.
 Tamez, 107-108, believes the text is referring to the exuberant praise with which even the wicked are eulogized when they die.
 Nor were they the only culture with this attitude. Eaton, 126, quotes a Sumerian adage, “He who esteems highly dogs which are clever, is a man who has no shame.”
 Tamez, 114, and Whybray, Ecclesiastes (Century), 142.
 Garrett, n. 208, p. 331.
 Fleming, 699.
 Frydrych, 191.
 Crenshaw, 162.
 Perry, 147.
 X.3, as quoted by Tamez, 117-118. Kaiser, 39, argues that in Gilgamesh, contextually speaking, it is a message of “resignation,” if not despair—lacking the positive elements Qohelet took for granted.
 Johnson, 120.
 Cf. Fox, Qohelet, 260. Crenshaw, 164, believes that a courier rather than an athlete is under consideration but the element of competition in the text argues for the latter.