Seize the Day
Passage: Ecclesiastes 9:1-10
Please turn to Ecclesiastes 8:2-9. We’ve been studying the book of Ecclesiastes long enough now for you to get a good feel for it. I don’t know how the book strikes you. Some people probably think it’s morbid because Solomon talks about death so much! And in fact, death looms large in this passage, as well. I almost entitled today’s lesson, “Living in the Shadow of Death,” but that was way too pessimistic, especially since this is the pinnacle carpe diem passage in the book. So I went instead with “Seize the Day.” The New Testament counterpart to this passage would be John 9:4. Jesus said, “I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work.” We must make the most out of life while we still can.
We’ve got a lot of different ages of people represented in this room, so I don’t know how you tend to think about your life. Maybe you think you’ve got a lot of time left. Maybe you’re convinced that you’ve only got a little. Maybe the idea of death really scares you. Or maybe you find yourself more and more longing to go home. Some of you don’t need to be reminded about the reality of death because you’ve lost a loved one, and not a day goes by in which you don’t think about that person and about being reunited with him or her in heaven. But whatever the case, all of us have this in common: we’re still here. We’re all still in the game. So, while we’re still here, we need to live life to the fullest.
Today’s lesson has three main points: number one, “Understand God’s sovereignty”; number two, “Think about your fate”; and number three, “Make the most of your time.” So let’s talk first about understanding God’s sovereignty. Last week, we sort of covered half of verse 1. But I want to go back and review that (v. 1-2a).
Understand God’s sovereignty
So Solomon gave himself to understanding all this, and what did he conclude? (“the righteous, the wicked, and their works are in the hand of God”) The key question in this verse is this: what does it mean to be in the hand of God? That’s a phrase we throw around a lot, but what does it really mean? In context, what Solomon means is that our circumstances are under God’s control.
Let me illustrate. When David sinned by numbering the people and was given three options for judgment, he said, “Let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for His mercies are great; but do not let me fall into the hand of men.” In other words, to be in God’s hand is to have God calling the shots as far as what’s going to happen to you next. Bring that understanding forward to this passage. Solomon, David’s son, recognizes that the righteous are always in God’s hand; He is always calling the shots for their lives. Now, does He also call the shots for the wicked? Yes; God is absolutely sovereign. But the focus here is on righteous people, and Solomon comforts them by saying, “You’re always in God’s hand.” Now, how does that affect us?
The second half of the verse says, “People know neither love nor hatred by anything they see before them.” You might have noticed that the words, “by” and “they see” are in italics, which means that they aren’t in the Hebrew. They’re supplied in the NKJV for clarity. If you take them out, you get something like this: “People know neither love nor hatred. Anything is before them.” In other words, part of being in God’s hand is that anything could happen. We just don’t know.
The phrase “neither love nor hatred” is a difficult one, the question being, whose love and hatred is Solomon talking about? Is this about God’s love or hatred? Many of the commentators take it that way. But I’m a bit uncomfortable with that, because it seems to suggest that righteous people can’t know how God will feel towards them. So at this point, I would prefer to say that the ones doing the loving and the hating are other people. In other words, just because you’re righteous doesn’t mean that people will like you. If you have questions about that, feel free to ask me later.
So we’ve seen that being in God’s hand means that anything could happen, but additionally, according to v. 2, it means that anything could happen to anyone, whether he is righteous or wicked. Righteousness does not necessarily shield us from misfortune, because God is in control, not us. In v. 11, Solomon’s going to say, “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.” In other words, sometimes life appears to be random. That’s a really scary thought if you’re trusting in your 401K. It’s a really scary thought if you’re trusting in your physical health to remain so that you can do your job. It’s a scary thought if you’re trusting in wishful thinking that there won’t be an earthquake. But it’s a comforting thought if you’re trusting in the Lord. This verse reminds me of a dialogue from one of my favorite books– “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” If you haven’t read the series, a group of siblings make their way into another world called Narnia, where there are talking animals and all sorts of other magical things. In this world, Christ is pictured as a great lion, named Aslan. When Susan finds out that Aslan is a lion, she asks Mr. Beaver, “’Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion’"... To which Mr. Beaver replied, "’Safe?... Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.’” You see, modern man wants a god who is safe, tame, like a domesticated animal who comes and sits when I snap my fingers. But that is not the God we serve. So being in His hand can be somewhat frightening. However, though He might not be “safe” as Susan put it, we know that He is good, and that we can trust Him. Not only that, but He’s strong, and no one can snatch us out of His hand.
So we’ve seen in the first part of v. 2 that all kinds of events happen to all sorts of people. Next, Solomon goes on to talk about one event that happens to everyone (vv. 2-3).
Think about your fate.
The word “event” in the first part of v. 2 literally means “fate,” so that’s where I get the wording, “Think about your fate.” Death is the fate of every man. The only exception to that is if Jesus comes first. Do you think about the fact that you’re going to die? My main job as a pastor is to prepare you to die (not to kill you J). But one of the things that makes that task difficult is that the world pushes this reality to the back burner. You can have someone who gets cancer at age 65, and it’s like it suddenly occurs to him, “I’m going to die!” Many people don’t think about death till it’s breathing down their neck. That shouldn’t be us, as Christians. We should be people who think seriously about life and death.
What is it about death that’s supposed to arouse our thinking (vv. 5-6, 10)? The thing about death that’s supposed to get our attention is that once you’re dead; you’re dead! (I know that’s not rocket science!) To use a sports analogy, once you retire, you’re done! (Sorry Michael Jordan, you can’t come back again as a player.) Once you’re out of the game, that’s it! Let’s look at things dead people don’t do. First of all, they don’t know (vv. 5, 10). Second, they don’t have a reward (v. 5). Third, they don’t get remembered (v. 5). Fourth, they don’t express emotions (v. 6). Fifth (and this one is important), they no longer participate in events “under the sun.” And finally, they don’t work (v. 10).
Do those verses make you nervous? How many of you would say, “Those verses make me feel uncomfortable” –raise your hand. It seems like Solomon is saying that there’s no afterlife, doesn’t it? So let’s deal with that.
As far as I can see, there are three ways you can approach this text. The first option is to take these verses as referring to the inability of the dead to take part in events on earth and to avoid reading too much into them. (That’s the best option.)
The second option is to take these verses as a reference to soul sleep. Do you know what soul sleep is? The idea is that when a person dies, his soul “sleeps” until the resurrection, when body and soul are reunited. Do you know which groups teach this false doctrine? (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and some liberal protestants) And this is one of the passages they use to defend that doctrine. Can you think of any problems with the doctrine of soul sleep? (Just say, “The New Testament” J.) The New Testament is clear that we remain conscious between death and the resurrection. We see that with the rich man and Lazarus, we see it with the thief on the cross, we see it in the book of Revelation where, for instance, the martyrs are crying out to God, asking Him to avenge them prior to the resurrection; and Paul says that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. So soul sleep is very unbiblical.
The final option when it comes to these verses is I guess to claim that the writer of Ecclesiastes didn’t think there was any life after death at all. But once again, this approach contradicts the Bible! Someone who holds this view might say that the writer didn’t know any better because he was in the Old Testament, or that Ecclesiastes doesn’t belong in our Bibles, or (more popularly) that the writer was actually an unbelieving skeptic, and we’re supposed to take everything that he says with a grain of salt! But all of those options collide with the doctrine of inerrancy.
So the best option is to interpret these verses in a way that does not contradict the rest of Scripture. And I don’t think that’s actually as difficult as it might first appear. The key to understanding this section is v. 6b. All of the other statements in this passage about what people don’t do after they die fit under this heading (v. 6b). The point of all of these descriptions is that once you die, you will never again take part in anything done under the sun. Death represents a sudden and complete break with this present world. So make the most of your life while you still have a chance. Does that make sense? We have to be careful not to push what Solomon is saying beyond the point he is trying to make.
But let’s also not miss the point that Solomon is trying to make! Tonight, is the Super Bowl. I’m sure that tomorrow, someone is going to wake up and kick himself for not trying harder. But it will be too late. He can’t go back and change the past. What’s done was done; and he may never have a chance to play in the Super Bowl ever again. In the same way, Solomon says that now is the time for living life the right way. Don’t miss it, because soon, your opportunity will be over. Before moving on, I should point out that one of the opportunities we have in this life is to repent and believe the gospel. That’s an opportunity that will run out once we die. Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.” And Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:2, “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold now is the day of salvation.” If you’re unsure of whether or not your saved, that must be your first priority while you still have time.
Before we go on to point 3, I want to go back to v. 3 and point out two things very quickly. First, notice that Solomon refers to death as an “evil” (or we could say, a “misfortune”). In other words, death is an unwelcome intruder into God’s beautiful world. It’s not just part of the circle of life! It’s evil! Now that said, death does not need to scare us as Christians. Because we know as I’ve already said that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. But we also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that death is bad. Second, notice how Solomon refers to human beings (v. 3b). Not only are our hearts full of evil; they’re also full of what? (madness) We’re all a little bit insane; some more than others. J All joking aside, the degree to which we listen to Satan’s lies is the degree to which we’re crazy. Sin is madness. It’s rebelling against the only God who loves you and submitting yourself to His eternal judgment because you’ll be better off without Him. It’s insanity.
Let’s move on. Point number one: “Understand God’s sovereignty.” Point number two: “Think about your fate.” And then number three: “Make the most of your time (vv. 7-10).”
Make the most of your time.
By now, the instructions in v. 7 should sound familiar. If I’ve counted right, this is the sixth carpe diem passage in the book of Ecclesiastes. And yet, this passage stands out from all the others. What makes this the pinnacle passage on enjoyment in the book? First, there are the imperatives. The other verses about enjoying life start out something like this: “There is nothing better than to… (eat, drink, etc.).” But v. 7 says, “Go! Eat! Drink!” There’s an urgency to these instructions that flows out of what Solomon has just said about the brevity of life!
This passage also stands out because it discusses a couple of topics not found elsewhere in the book. For instance, there’s this reference to anointing your head and wearing white garments. So let’s talk about that for a minute. Have you ever worn white to a funeral? I know, sometimes a guy might wear a white shirt, but the point is that this is opposite of sackcloth and ashes. Now, some of you may remember that back in chapter 7, Solomon said it’s better to attend a funeral than a party. But these two instructions are not mutually exclusive. We shouldn’t press the “always” in v. 8 too far, as if it’s never appropriate to mourn. Rather, we should understand from this that our typical attitude should be one of rejoicing. Solomon doesn’t seem to think that true joy and mourning are necessarily at odds.
Another topic found only here in Ecclesiastes is the topic of marriage. Solomon says “Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of your vain life [or your short-lived or fleeting life] which He has given you under the sun.” “Get married and enjoy your wife.”
One final thing that makes this passage stand out is its emphasis on work (v. 10). In our culture, we tend to view work as a necessary evil. We complain about it, we try to do as little of it as possible… but the Bible is clear that work is a gift from God! When did God put Adam in the Garden, to dress and to keep it? Was it before the Fall or after? (before) When did God tell him to name all of the animals? Was it before the Fall or after? (before) Therefore, work is good. Imagine life without any work. I’m not just talking about being retired. I know a lot of retired people who still work a lot! I’m talking about no work, period! Wouldn’t that be boring? Of course, it would! Because we were created to work. Now please don’t get me wrong, just like any other good gift, work can be taken to an unbalanced and unhealthy extreme (for more on that, see chapter 4). We can work for the wrong reasons or work to the exclusion of other important things. We can also work at the wrong things! As Christians, the most important task we could possibly work on is the task of the Great Commission! But sometimes, we lay up treasure on earth instead of in heaven. So there are pitfalls to be avoided. However, work itself is good.
One of the cool things I discovered in my study this week is that the second half of v. 10 provides us with somewhat of a commentary on what it means to work “with your might.” Solomon says, “Work with your might… because there is no work, or device, or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going,” the implication being that our work right now is to include those things! Does that make sense? So what do those words mean? Well, there’s a lot of crossover, so I don’t want to read too much into this, but there’s also some distinction. The word “work” has to do with industry or enterprise. Our work is to involve initiative and creativity. We shouldn’t have to be told what do every time. An excellent worker actually creates work for himself. The word “device” could also be translated, “reasoning.” Our work is to include strategy, as we seek to solve problems. “Knowledge” can refer to perception or discernment. In order to excel at his or her job, a man or woman must possess a certain level of technical knowledge as it relates to his or her profession. The more knowledge we obtain, the better we will be at our jobs. Finally, the word “wisdom” has the basic meaning of skill. It takes practice to get good at something. So to work hard means to take initiative, to think strategically, to gain and employ the necessary knowledge, and to develop skill. When you work like that, you bring glory to God.
I hope you see based on this passage that God wants what’s best for you. Psalm 84:11 says, “No good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly.” He’s not trying to make you miserable; He wants to bless you. That’s not to say that there isn’t suffering. Anyone who’s spent any time in Ecclesiastes knows that. But the pattern that He set for us is truly enjoyable!
I love the book of Ecclesiastes. My interest in this book started as a teenager, when we studied it in my Christian school. And one of the things that intrigued me about the book was the way Solomon talks about making your life count. This may sound funny to you, but I can remember standing in front of the bathroom mirror in my home growing up and praying that God would help me to live life to its fullest. And that wasn’t just an isolated prayer; I prayed that many And it’s still my prayer today. I want to live life to the fullest–to be satisfied in God, enjoy His blessings, love people, and to work my tail off for Him. I fail at that all the time, but that’s my desire.
If you’re a young person, I pray that this passage is enabling to you, that it frees you to go out and enjoy life and serve God within the boundaries that He has set up and with Him at the center. And if you’re an older person, I pray that you are reminded to make the most of the opportunities you still have to enjoy life and to work for the Lord.