Soundings

THE MYSTERY OF LIFE

Dec 2004    

PART 15 OF THE SERIES OF MEDITATIONS ON ‘WISDOM TO LIVE BY: REFLECTIONS ON AN ANCIENT TEXT’

Ecclesiastes 9:1-18

IN A broadcast talk on Oct 1, 1939, Lord Randolph Churchill described Russia memorably as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”.

The writer of Ecclesiastes could have very well used these words to describe life itself.

The opening words of chapter 9 can be paraphrased in this way: “This, too, I carefully explored: Even though the actions of godly and wise people are in God’s hands, no one knows whether or not God will show them favour in this life” (New Living Translation).

These words express the Preacher’s struggle, not with the existence of God, but with the inscrutability of His will. He be-lieves that God exists, and that He rules the whole universe; but he is unable to fathom the ways of God.

The fact that God’s will is inscrutable should deter us from making quick and confident conclusions regarding the events of life and their outcomes. The Preacher has already cautioned against such presumption several times in earlier passages. Prosperity is not always the sign that God is pleased with us because even the wicked sometimes prosper. Similarly, adversity should not always be regarded as divine punishment or as a sign of God’s displeasure.

Such superficial theological reasoning, based on misguided presuppositions, is the fundamen-tal error of Job’s three “friends”, who were convinced that God was punishing Job for the sins that he has committed. To be sure, sometimes suffering and personal problems are the result of God’s displeasure and disap-proval. But as this and so many other passages in the Bible tell us, this is not always the case.

This passage then leads to the most profound insights about God and our knowledge of Him: it tells us that although God has indeed revealed Himself through His Word, He still remains a mystery.

This is brought out very clearly in Isaiah: “‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways’, declares the Lord” (Isa 55:8). It is foolish to think that because God has revealed something about Himself to us, we are able to figure out what He is going to do.

This is perhaps one of the most diffi-cult lessons to learn in life, especially for the believer. But it is a lesson that needs to be learned again and again if we are to live life to the fullest. It is when we learn to accept that life is a mystery that we learn truly to entrust ourselves into the hands of God.

Verses 1-6 are quite depressing as the Preacher confronts the mysteries of life with his usual honesty and transparency. The author’s preoccupation with the reality of death again makes itself obvious in these verses. Basically, the Preacher here points out that death is the great equaliser: the “same destiny overtakes all”, the rich and the poor, the righteous and the wicked. Death does not show favours, and is no respecter of persons.
Modern readers may not be too comfortable with confronting death in the way that the Preacher is urging his readers to do. We moderns sometimes like to disguise death by camouflaging its ugliness so as to create the illusion that life is going to last forever. But the Preacher forces us to con-front the reality of death, and so also to recognise the evil in all of us that brought it about. For death is not part of the original plan of the Creator – it is an antithesis to the divine plan brought about by human sinfulness.

How are we to live our lives in the face of life’s mysteries and in the face of death? In the second half of our passage (vv 7-10), the Preacher shares his secret, a simple philosophy of life that still works. Firstly, he says that the believer must learn to cultivate an attitude of gratitude and contentment that would enable him or her to enjoy all of God’s provisions. “Go, eat your food with gladness and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favours what you do” (v 7).

We must not think that the Preacher is advocating a nihilistic hedonism that is articulated in the Greek proverb: “Let us eat and drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”. There is an atheistic fatalism in the Greek proverb that is totally absent in the Preacher’s attitude to life.

The Preacher is urging his readers to recognise the gracious provisions of God, the simple gifts that come from His hand, and to enjoy them. The Preacher is there-fore urging believers to relish each and every moment because they come from God. Although believers must look to the future, they are also to learn to enjoy the present. And they can do so because they know that the God who holds the future is now present in their lives.

In verse 8, we read, “Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil.” The two metaphors – white garments and oil – have been variously in-terpreted by different commenta-tors. Although most modern commentators appear to agree that they are symbols of joy and cel-ebration, some older commenta-tors maintain that “white gar-ments” symbolises holiness, while “oil” symbolises the Holy Spirit.

The context, however, seems to suggest that the Preacher had celebration and merry-making in mind. His exhortation is simply: “Don’t let yourselves be mired down by life’s vexatious problems. Put your life and future in the hands of God, and enjoy the simple gifts that He has given.”

One commentator has ably summa-rised the Preacher’s central message in these verses thus: “A thankful spirit for the graces of life is a must for he who would discover profit on his sojourn through life”.

Dr Roland Chia, Dean of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College, worships at Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

GOD’S GRACIOUS PROVISIONS

The Preacher is urging his readers to recognise the gracious provisions of God, the simple gifts that come from His hand, and to enjoy them. The Preacher is therefore urging believers to relish each and every moment because they come from God.

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