• The Explore the Bible lesson for Aug. 18 focuses on Ecclesiastes 9:3-12, 15-18.
This section of Ecclesiastes is perhaps the most pessimistic of the entire book, even though the themes explored here are not new. Nonetheless, don’t be surprised to find yourself feeling down when you read Qoheleth’s words.
The first part of this passage returns to an idea seen earlier: Death is the universal fate of all creatures. “All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not” (v. 2).
In our world, this is an odd thing to speak about so boldly. In fact, we often search for ways to avoid discussing and facing death, even at funerals. There are two things to notice here. First, death is a reality of life—not an enemy of life, but an integral part of it. Even Qoheleth wants to delay death as much as possible because “a live dog is better off than a dead lion” (v. 4). If life is better than death, then Qoheleth advises life should be enjoyed, because things may change in an instant.
Time and chance happen to all
The insecurity that comes from success and virtue also is seen in shifting life circumstances: “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. … As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them” (vv. 11-12).
Like other portions of Ecclesiastes, we can identify with the point being made. In the current economic situation in the United States, many good and honest people have suffered, and not because of their own choices. As quickly as life was easy, the situation changed, and many people experienced hardship. In other words, having wealth or even possessing wisdom will not guarantee a comfortable life.
There is a determinism to Ecclesiastes that might make readers throw up their hands and leave their faith behind. Clearly, texts like these run against the grain of American slogans proclaiming anyone can do anything as long as they try hard enough. Pure willpower is not sufficient to change one’s situation; you have to have luck as well. Ecclesiastes’ perspective is in fact a long-held one.
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It might help us to remember that, for ancient and medieval philosophers—including the Christian philosopher Boethius—the “wheel of fortune” was described as a large round stone wheel set on its side, moving as it wished with no predictability. Some people, those who stand atop the wheel as it rolls, gain significant benefits; others, those who fall underneath the weight of the wheel, are subject to the cruel fate of fortune. Thus, despite the overt pessimism of Ecclesiastes, we should remember Qoheleth is saying something true: Wisdom is to be desired, but it does not necessarily make life any easier.
Importance and limits of wisdom
The latter section of this passage discusses the importance and limits of wisdom. Verses 15-16 mention a poor wise man who saves a city through his wisdom, but he is not remembered, nor his wisdom heeded, because of this poverty. This is an interesting point that Qoheleth, who is by all accounts a very wealthy person, is making: Wealth and wisdom are better than wisdom without wealth. While there may be some merit to this idea, it is important to keep in mind that wealth also has the capability to corrupt one’s character. This danger is discussed in the final verses of this chapter, where even “one sinner destroys much good” (v. 18).
Numerous times a prominent Christian leader has done a great deal of good in the world, only to see this lost because of one misstep. Certainly no one is perfect, and there is forgiveness to be received. Nonetheless, Qoheleth wants us to realize the importance of strong moral character. One commentator writes, “A little of a bad thing (folly) can spoil quite a lot of a good thing (wisdom).”