What Did the Wise Man Mean?
They Are in God’s Hands
Wise as he was, King Solomon could not fathom the full scope of God’s work—the things that the Most High not only does but also tolerates in the outworking of his grand purpose. Still there was a vital truth that Solomon ‘took to heart’ after making a careful investigation of human affairs. What was it? “The righteous ones and the wise ones and their works are in the hand of the true God.”—Eccl. 9:1.
Yes, both as to their persons and their actions, the righteous and the wise are in the hands or in the power of the Most High. While he may permit calamity to befall them, they positively will not lose their reward. Jehovah God “knows those who belong to him” and will make all his works turn out ‘for the good of those who love him.’ (Rom. 8:28; 2 Tim. 2:19) This can be a source of comfort and encouragement when we see righteous persons suffering while the wicked are prospering.—Eccl. 8:14.
Bible scholars of recent centuries have been puzzled as to just what Solomon meant by his next statement at Ecclesiastes 9:1: “Mankind are not aware of either the love or the hate that were all prior to them.” It may well be that these words were purposely written in such a way that a number of practical concepts can be drawn from them. For example, this may be understood as meaning that, because death brings an end to people’s love and hate, the living have no idea of how much love and hate existed before they were born, that is, in the lives of people who lived before their own time.
Or, it may be that Solomon’s words should be viewed in the previously expressed context of God’s having power over the righteous and the wise as well as their works. The love and the hate that they as well as all the rest of mankind experience are a result of God’s permission or toleration. Also, the Most High foreknew long before their birth that humans would experience both love and hate. He permitted a sinful human race, with its love and hate, to come into existence. After the rebellion of Adam and Eve, Jehovah God declared: “I shall put enmity between you [the original serpent, Satan the Devil] and the woman [not Eve, but God’s “woman” (Gal. 4:26-31)] and between your seed and her seed.” (Gen. 3:15) So, though God was not ‘unaware of either the love or the hate’ that would result among mankind, this was something that man himself would come to know only through hard experience.
Then, again, the wise man’s statement at Ecclesiastes 9:1 might be explained as follows: Among imperfect humans the emotions of love and hate are often expressed without rhyme or reason. So humans lack an awareness, an understanding or comprehension of the motivation of all the love and the hate expressed prior to them. Thus understood, Solomon’s words would tie in with his following discussion of life’s uncertainties and the unpredictability with which death can bring an end to everything. Love and hate can be just as blind and incomprehensible.
By reason of being in an imperfect, sinful world, humans, whether righteous or wicked, may experience both good and bad, love and hate. Jehovah God allows both the righteous and the wicked to enjoy food and drink as well as his other generous provisions for sustaining life. (Matt. 5:45; Acts 14:16, 17) Furthermore, when it comes to dying, there is no distinction. Solomon continued: “All are the same in what all have. One eventuality there is to the righteous one and the wicked one, the good one and the clean one and the unclean one, and the one sacrificing and the one that is not sacrificing. The good one is the same as the sinner; the one swearing [lightly or thoughtlessly] is the same as whoever has been afraid of a sworn oath.”—Eccl. 9:2.
Since there may seem to be no outward difference between what befalls the righteous and the wicked during their lifetime, and especially since all end up in death, it might appear that there is no real advantage in leading an upright, God-fearing life. Solomon pointed to this as a reason for persistent wrongdoing among mankind, saying: “This is what is calamitous in all that has been done under the sun, that, because there is one eventuality to all, the heart of the sons of men is also full of bad.”—Eccl. 9:3.
But does their giving in to lawlessness benefit them? No, for the wise man states: “There is madness in their heart during their lifetime, and after it—to the dead ones!” (Eccl. 9:3) While alive, they act as if beside themselves, following their wrong desires and inclinations without any restraint. Finally, their life of revelry and lust ends abruptly in death. What, then, is the truly wise course?
Enjoy Your Life in a Wholesome Way
A person should appreciate life and use it well. Solomon wrote: “As respects whoever is joined to all the living there exists confidence, because a live dog is better off than a dead lion. For the living are conscious that they will die [a sobering thought that should move them to use their life in a wholesome way]; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all, neither do they anymore have wages, because the remembrance of them has been forgotten. Also, their love and their hate and their jealousy have already perished and they have no portion anymore to time indefinite in anything that has to be done under the sun.”—Eccl. 9:4-6.
Only when a person is alive can there be any confidence, any hope. Then is the time to build up a good name with the Creator. While there is life, hope remains that there might be a change for the better, even in the case of the one carrying on in a lawless way. When death comes it is too late. Hence, the living dog, though despised, is better off than a dead lion, the regal beast. The living can still do things, but the dead have no share in any activity or in the emotions of love, hate and jealousy that are so much a part of man’s earthly existence.
We should, therefore, enjoy the works of our hands as God-fearing persons. Solomon admonishes: “Go, eat your food with rejoicing and drink your wine with a good heart, because already the true God has found pleasure in your works. On every occasion let your garments prove to be white [bright and clean, reflecting, not mourning or gloom, but joy], and let oil [likewise representative of joy, oil being cooling and refreshing] not be lacking upon your head. See life with the wife whom you love all the days of your vain life that He has given you under the sun, all the days of your vanity, for that is your portion in life and in your hard work with which you are working hard under the sun. All that your hand finds to do, do with your very power, for there is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol, the place to which you are going.”—Eccl. 9:7-10.
Wholesome enjoyment of life, including food and drink, is right, proper. It is God’s gift and, therefore, has his approval. Evidently this is what Solomon meant when he followed up the encouragement to find delight in food and drink with the words, “because already the true God has found pleasure in your works.” Yes, the Most High does not want us to lead an austere life, depriving ourselves of all joy. Being a happy God, he wants people to be happy in daily living, including their married life. (Acts 14:17) This, of course, is not advocating a life of self-indulgence and mere pleasure seeking. Solomon encouraged work, taking advantage of opportunities to exert the hands in doing good before a person is totally incapacitated by death and ends up in Sheol, gravedom.
In this world, then, the wisest course is to enjoy life while one can, doing so within the bounds of God’s moral laws. Very quickly death can bring everything to nothingness, because all too often the unexpected happens. The fastest runner may stumble and lose the race. A mighty army may go down in defeat before inferior forces. A wise man may be unable to get a good job and so may suffer hunger. People with excellent understanding of business management may, because of circumstances, be unable to put their understanding to work and thus find themselves in poverty. Knowledgeable persons may incur the wrath of those in authority and come to be in disfavor. This is something King Solomon noted in passing, but, after reconsidering it more carefully, he wrote: “I returned to see under the sun that the swift do not have the race, nor the mighty ones the battle, nor do the wise also have the food, nor do the understanding ones also have the riches, nor do even those having knowledge have the favor; because time and unforeseen occurrence befall them all. For man also does not know his time [for death can come unexpectedly]. Just like fishes that are being taken in an evil net, and like birds that are being taken in a trap, so the sons of men themselves are being ensnared at a calamitous time, when it falls upon them suddenly.”—Eccl. 9:11, 12.
So, just as fish may be caught unexpectedly in a net and birds in a trap, death can overtake humans suddenly, without warning. What a powerful lesson Solomon gave about getting wholesome, rewarding enjoyment from life and its true benefits and opportunities while one can!