Ecclesiastes - Dust to Dust (Mortality and Mission)
Chapter 3, 9, 11
All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.
But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.
Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth. If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth, and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie. He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap. As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything. In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good. Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many.
Content and Context
9:1 - Love or Hate
Solomon emphasizes again the powerful doctrines of God’s sovereignty and omniscience. The love/hate dichotomy in the Old Testament can be about acceptance/rejection and not just emotions. Whichever Solomon has in mind we cannot know, but that is not relevant. What matters is that God knows when we love or hate. That is not to say that He approves of hating other people. In light of New Testament revelation, the faithful are called to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
9:2-3 - Good and the Evil
The universal nature and knowledge of death is not a new insight. But Solomon laments the fact that both the righteous and the wicked die. The righteous are classified as good partly because they bring sacrifices and make vows. It is assumed here that they live in obedience to the sacrificial system as outlined in the Law of Moses. The wicked do not bring sacrifices and they are classified as “sinners” who “shun an oath.” They are not interested in what the Law of God says, or to live according to His will as revealed in the Law. Even so, death is referred to as “the same event” that “happens to all.” Solomon concludes that this is not only not good, but that this is, in fact, the absence of good; it is “evil.” How does this fit with his view of God’s sovereignty? It seems that it doesn’t. But he is not afraid to ask the tough questions and even to allow the life/death question to remain in an unresolved tension.
9:4-6 - Hope of Living
Even though life and death are realities for both the wicked and the righteous, there is a clear advantage to those who are in the land of the living. The living have hope! If we are alive we have hope, and life is worth living because we have that hope! The text does not specify anything about this hope, but Kaiser suggests that the living have “the hope of preparation for meeting God,” “the hope of living significantly,” and the “hope of doing something to the glory of God.” The advantage of the living is also seen in the expectation of a reward. Those who die bury with them love, hate, and envy, and they join in the underworld as they leave the land of those living “under the sun.”
11:1-2 - Generosity
The first two verses go together and they advise both generosity and wise investments. The Targum commentary of verse 1 emphasizes generosity, a concept widely developed in Wisdom Literature. “Give your nourishing bread to the poor who go in ships upon the surface of the water, for after a period of many days you will find its reward in the world to come.” This generosity formula refers to “both “generous philanthropy,” and “prudent industry.” The German theologian Martin Luther recommended, “Be generous to everyone while you can, use your riches wherever you can possibly do any good.” The warning, “for you know not what disaster may happen on earth,” points to the uncertainty and unpredictability of life, making it extremely important that we act wisely with our resources. We do not live in fear of disaster or tragedy, but we wisely use each day for loving and living better. Be generous with what you can - while you - we never know for sure when we can't.
11:3-6 - Diligence
As Solomon observed the way things happen under the sun, he noticed that rain falls when the clouds are full. Likewise, if a tree falls, it will lie there. The expression “to the south or to the north” is a merism. Wherever a tree falls, it will just lie there. These images could speak to the inevitability of disasters and to the fact that humans cannot control the future. Verse 4 returns to agricultural language. The farmer cannot wait for ideal conditions; rather, he must be faithful in sowing if he/she wants to reap. The farmer cannot be guided by observing the wind or paying attention to the clouds. Not only are humans incapable of controlling the rain and the wind, we are incapable of knowing the future, which includes not fully comprehending or always understanding what God is doing. It truly is a mystery how “the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman, and that we “do not know the work of God who makes everything.” In spite of his pessimism and reflective negativity Solomon was not an atheist or an agnostic. God was very real to Him even though he frequently chose to disobey Him, he also affirms God’s omniscient power and presence. He does know when the rain will fall and He does know where the clouds will go. The idea is for us to be positive, industrious, and diligent. While we can, we need to sow good seed and keep working... “for you do not know which will prosper.” Just like it is a wise strategy to diversify when it comes to money, Solomon says it is wise to diversify when it comes to work and those things that we are passionate about. In Wisdom Literature the wise are never portrayed as lazy; rather, they are industrious and diligent when it comes to work and attitude. The New Testament continues this same idea when the Apostle Paul teaches the believers to “work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men."
Reading Ecclesiastes, we can see there are obvious questions in Solomon’s viewpoints and processing of the afterlife, we hear him encourage humans to rejoice even celebrate their present work, daily tasks, and course the infamous "eat drink and be merry." However, none of this means Solomon does not believe in life after death in the Jewish tradition. It is the dust to dust processing and regretful lament of a living contradiction - the foolishness of the wisest man to ever live. Solomon talks strongly about the value of a carpel diem - seize the day philosophy (chapter 2 verses 24-26, chapter 3 verses 12-14) and making it consistent with the character, attitude and blessing of God, yet uses the reality and inevitability of a life after death settled by reckoning or reward, rejection or reception. The here and now and the hereafter leads and lends itself each to the other. But if one or the other is lived out of proportion by themselves, they can become toxic and even fatalistic. Here is where we must jump in and reflect on our own life and living. I see Solomon as the ultimate example of this; although he had the wisdom to understand God's dust to dust destiny for life after death, he foolishly lost himself in the narcissistic side of eat, drink, and be merry. Although you and I cannot see what will happen after we die, we have to learn to fully trust in the sovereignty of the Creator God who has control of life here and now as well as life beyond this life. This is where we find a healthy spiritual balance for our own lives in the dust to dust wisdom.
Thinking about other connected scripture, we are reminded that Jesus died to redeem us from the meaninglessness Solomon experienced. As true followers of Jesus, you and I just cannot live with the impulsive and inconsistent view of the afterlife that Solomon had. Rather, we need to take comfort in the fact that Christ-followers will spend an eternity in the presence of the Lord - and then make each decision and live each day like we believe it. Those who reject Jesus’ death and resurrection do not have the same hope.
Solomon confirms in these verses that God is in control of the world and that death is inevitable for all. In the movie National Treasure, the main character attempts to solve the riddle, “What is the debt that all men must pay?” and of course the answer is death. There is no greater proof of our inability to control fate in this world than the fact that we will all die. If I could control my mortality, I would, but I cannot. The Bible is clear in this...
“By the sweat of your face you will eat bread, until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
So if we are all destined to die and if we have very limited control, then what should we do with this reality? Do we fight, resist and rebel against God for control of something that we cannot control? Or do we accept God’s sovereignty and choose to lovingly and respectfully honor and fear Him?
In his writing, Solomon likes to emphasize the point that order in the world is illusive and it is not within mankind’s finite mind to understand God’s timeline for events This challenges anyone who does not believe in God simply because without relationship or belief in Him (either consciously or unconsciously) people are seeking to be gods themselves. Unregenerate mankind engages in a crusade to control time in order to gain an escape from individual responsibility and to obtain what they think will provide peace and security. Many people will get stuck in this cycle as they are unable to assign meaning and understanding to the painful events they have experienced. As a result they continue to seek personal answers or choose skepticism about life. Accepting one’s limitations and the unpredictability of life is a terrifying ordeal. These passages in Ecclesiastes do not indicate that life is totally out of control. Instead, I hear a plea to be reflective and to accept the truth that God is sovereign. The famous quote from Socrates states, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” As Socrates emphasized self-examination, so Solomon encourages his readers to become reflective and attentive to what season of life they are in. A contemplative, reflective person will not dwell on the details and troubles of life, but will instead choose to focus on the Creator of the universe.
Solomon also seems to be saying we are responsible for our choices that occur within God’s timeline, a timeline of which we know rarely matches our own. Well known psychiatrist William Glasser developed his own theory of counseling called Choice Theory. Glasser’s theory maintains that the only person’s behavior (thoughts and actions) that we can control is our own. Glasser further asserts that attempts to control others frequently results in frustration and destruction of close relationships. Solomon originates this theory by indicating that in times of pain loss of control we are to respond in Godly ways. Solomon does not seem to be sending a hedonistic message to pursue pleasure, rather that it is our job to accept and navigate what we can and can’t control. Can we accept the fact that both pain and pleasure will come throughout our lives? Or do we choose to blindly maneuver in our world, looking for something new to satisfy our souls? The emptiness that we feel in our souls cannot be satisfied (chapter 3:11) this side of heaven, and the God-shaped void in our souls will not be satisfied with Satan’s distractions (chapter 2:1-11).
At the beginning of chapter 11, Solomon encourages us to cast our bread upon the waters, which in essence is a reference to living generously despite the risks inherent in life (verse 1). Even within the psychological research we see the benefits of living generously. One clinical study by Psychologists Piliavin and Callero found that blood donors experience positive emotions from their generosity. There is even evidence to say that teaching generosity through community service may decrease adolescent criminal activity and may play a role in moral development, emotional balance, self-acceptance, self-esteem, social integration, and developing positive attitudes towards adults. In Proverbs 19:17 Solomon states, “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed,” which may indicate that being generous actually produces its own reward. In fact one study suggested that the benefits of increased generosity could influence the psychoneuroimmunological pathways and consequently reduce mortality in aging adults. It’s easy in times of uncertainty to make excuses and to not live generously.
Solomon returns to the nagging realization that we have limited control. When faced with uncertainty, we tend to hoard our resources like we like we see in Ecclesiastes chapter 5, but this is not the instruction we get from these verses (3-5). Instead we are encouraged to live courageously generous, knowing full well that we cannot understand God’s ways. But, trusting that His ways benefit and bless our lives more than does our own ways.
We are responsible for our actions. Adlerian Psychology, known as Individual Psychology, states that we are responsible for acting in social interest - meaning right and useful behavior. Manaster and Corsini further state: “The natural consequences of social living make one chargeable for one’s own actions. The pain and suffering that come from useless (wrong) behavior, from not facing one’s responsibility and proceeding with courage are natural consequences of a person’s mistaken goals. If you do not hold up your end in life, it will fall on your foot.” We see personal responsibility throughout the Scriptures, including the tasks that were given to Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:16-19, 23). When we sin, we are sinning against God, and throughout Ecclesiastes we see repeated references for man being held responsible before God (chapter 12 verse 14).
Solomon's wisdom warns us that throughout our life we will make many choices, but we must remember the choices we make will be brought before God in His final judgment. Dust to dust - much to consider - much to process - much to do. Dust to Dust...