Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

22 May 2013

Living In Light of Death: Ecclesiastes 9:7–10

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Can you imagine the shock when an usher escorts you out of a church service to be told that your mother had just died? Because my mother was forty-four years old at that time and had become a Christian a few years earlier, I was emotionally devastated when I was greeted with this news. I was twenty-two and in my first year of seminary. For the first time in my life I faced the reality that someone who was intimately connected to me had unexpectedly died. Though I knew a few other people who had died, none had been as close to me as my mother, and this news affected me in such a way that I ached for many days. I was faced with a reality that death is no respecter of persons. We all face the reality of death many times in our lives. We see our loved ones die, people in our community, those we work with, and fellow believers. And, we will die! This is the type of context where Solomon commands his audience to joyfully make the most of God’s basic gifts. In Ecclesiastes 9:7–10 he gives a series of commands that not only applied to his generation but also to all other generations, including ours. Notice his advice:

[7] Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. [8] Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. [9] Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. [10] Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going (ESV).

Though Solomon has previously treated the subject of death on other occasions in Ecclesiastes, he devotes more space to this in 9:1–6 and 11–12. Verses 7–10 are the core of a pericope that extends from 9:1 through 9:12. The regenerate and unregenerate alike, in vv. 2–6, inevitably face death. Like fish and birds, people, in vv. 11–12, cannot predict when they will die. In the context of vv. 7–10, Solomon gives his advice by using a series of imperatives: three commands in v. 7 focus on food and drink; three in vv. 8–9 on nice clothes, oil, and one’s wife; and one in v. 10 on living wholeheartedly.

The first imperative in v. 7, “go,” is an interjectory use that focuses on the two following imperatives “eat” and “drink.” Finding satisfaction in what one eats and drinks was previously commended in four earlier passages: 2:24, 3:13, 5:18–19 (Heb. vv. 17–18), and 8:15. In this context two objects are added: “bread,” lehem, with eating and “wine,” yayin, with drinking. In this verse the prepositional phrases that qualify the commands to eat bread and to drink wine, “with joy” and “with a merry heart,” reflect the celebratory nature of both imperatives. The theocentric nature of this verse should also be noted: “for God has already approved what you do.”

Solomon gives three other commands in vv. 8–9: “let [your garments] be white,” “let [not oil] be lacking,” and “enjoy.” While the third command is an imperative, the first two are jussive forms used as commands. Each of these commands extols the enjoyment of new elements in Ecclesiastes (for a listing of the other gifts to enjoy, see the other carpe diem, or enjoyment-of-life, passages: 2:24–26; 3:12–13, 22; 5:18–20 [Heb. 5:17–19]; 8:15; 9:7–10; 11:9–12:1): garments being white, no deficiency of oil, and enjoying life with one’s wife.

The first command is a command to wear white clothes. In contrast to the black robes of mourning, the white garments reflect a celebratory mood. The second one highlights the regularity of anointing one’s head with oil. Like Psalm 45:7, this is associated with joy. The commands in this verse about white clothing and oil, like other carpe diem passages in Ecclesiastes, presuppose that Solomon derives his theology from the early chapters of Genesis. The final command is a call to enjoy life with one’s beloved wife. However, the ESV’s translation of hebel as “vain” is unfortunate. It is preferable to translate this Hebrew term as “enigmatic,” or an equivalent (though the nature of this blog post does not permit a justification of this rendering, I would recommend two sources that give solid defenses of this translation value: Graham Ogden’s “‘Vanity’ It Certainly Is Not,” The Bible Translator 38 [July 1987]: 301–7; and Jason DeRouchie’s “Shepherding Wind and One Wise Shepherd: Grasping for Breath in Ecclesiastes,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 15 [Fall 2011]: 4–25). With this understanding, Solomon commands men to enjoy life with their beloved wives during their enigmatic days on earth. Solomon’s use of hebel as “enigmatic” reinforces the book’s focus on the puzzling nature of life.

In addition to the commands in vv. 7–9, Solomon has one more in v. 10: “do.” More specifically, this command is to accomplish “whatever your hand finds to do…with your might.” In other words, one should wholeheartedly pursue, as God enables, the specifics of what is detailed in the carpe diem passages (eating, drinking, working along with the benefits from it, wisdom, adorning nice clothes, lavishly using oil, enjoying one’s wife, and living wholeheartedly) with intelligence and wisdom, as the last half of v. 10 implies.

By Solomon using a series of imperatives in vv. 7–10, he authoritatively calls us to judiciously enjoy life. When these verses are set in the immediate context of 9:1–12, this passage reflects the contrast between life and death. This tension is not only reflective of this unit of verses but also the overall design of Ecclesiastes with its dialectical scheme. Solomon’s overall sketch in this book mirrors the paradoxical nature of this world that was cursed at the Fall with unsolvable conflicts and disjointedness, yet it also affirms that God is renewing creation and man. Solomon uses vv. 7–10, as well as the other carpe diem passages, to affirm this renewal.

As Ecclesiastes describes, we will also face issues with death as well as other results of the curse, such as suffering. And, as we work through these issues, may we return to Solomon’s advice by embracing our God and enjoying the gifts he has bestowed on us.

2 Responses

  1. bill provenzano

    I distinctly remember the morning of September 3, 1984 when, at 3:30 AM I awoke to my mother screaming that dad was dying and to call an ambulance. I can still hear it, see it, feel it. I was 11. Ever since then, death has been a stark reality and my heart ached for a very long time.

    Obviously, the older I got the more people died. Some people lost relatives, some friends, some lost fathers and mothers. In a way, I have envied people who have their father well into adulthood. It truly is a blessing to see. For my part, not having a father pushed me to recognize my Heavenly Father and see His Hand on my life.

    In a way, my father’s death resulted in what is a picture of my own death. When he died, I had to go to Him as my only Father. When I die, I will again go to Him, my Father, with my Advocate standing within me.

    Realizing there are many who have lost so much more than me, I am nonetheless convinced that there is much to be thankful for and to enjoy, no matter how bad things get. It’s all a matter of having the right perspective relative to one’s God ordained position. If I take the perspective you have discussed, there is much joy to experience. If I begin to take my eye off of my Father, the waves look troubling and unsatisfying. I become malcontent.

    Thanks for the article.