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Ecclesiastes 9 Study Notes

9:2-6 When Ecclesiastes says there is one fate for the righteous and the wicked, it means physical death, not heaven or hell. We cannot control or avoid death by our works. But people draw the wrong conclusion from this; they assume that since there is nothing they can do to change the fact that death awaits all, they might as well cast away all restraint and live for themselves. They become full of evil and madness. They cling to life, and use proverbs such as a live dog is better than a dead lion. Indeed, Ecclesiastes wants us to take death seriously. If we do, we will realize how fleeting are the passions that fuel our lives. But despair and self-abandonment are not the answer.

9:7-10 The proper response to death is to treat life as precious. The simple matters of eating and drinking should be done with a cheerful heart. Wearing clothes that are white and having oil on the head refer to dressing up, as for a party. The message is that we should treat most days as times of celebration and not of mourning. To enjoy life with one’s wife is to find sexual pleasure in the proper way.

9:10 Sheol refers to the grave. The point of saying that no work, planning, knowledge, or wisdom occurs there is not to deny the possibility of such in the afterlife, but to assert that we have only one opportunity to enjoy this world.

9:11-12 Another aspect of our mortality is that we are governed by time and circumstances. Ecclesiastes does not deny the sovereignty of God over human affairs. The Teacher asserts that no matter how capable we are, many things are beyond our control. Above all, the moment of death is not ours to choose.

9:13-10:17 The teachings and proverbs in this section focus on making one’s way in the world, and they are especially focused on political life. The people described here are likely to have direct contact with the king (10:4). This suggests that the original audience was not the peasant or merchant class, but the aristocracy. In the modern world, many of these teachings apply to what we might describe as “office politics.”

9:13-16 In this anecdote, a poor but wise man conceived of a strategy that saved his city from destruction. This proves that wisdom is better than power, but the man’s lack of power meant that he was not properly rewarded for his work. A person needs wisdom to deal with the world’s problems, but this does not ensure that he will achieve wealth or glory.

9:17-10:1 In this section two contrasting ideas are set against each other. On the one hand, wisdom is more effective for governing people than is the brutal exercise of force and violence, described as shouts and weapons of war (9:17-18a). On the other hand, a single mistake can do a lot of damage and nullify the work of much wisdom (9:18b-10:1). The point of 10:1 is that dead flies in a fine ointment make that ointment disgusting. In the same way, one fool can ruin an administration and one mistake can ruin a career.

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