1But 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. 2It 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. 3This 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. 4But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5For 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. 6Their 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.
(Ecclesiastes 9:1-6 ESV)
King Solomon thought deeply (laid to heart) about all he had observed about life, meditating on it (examining it all). He saw how the righteous and the wise are in the hand of God. Nevertheless man does not know who has God’s approval and who has His disapproval (love or hate).
We cannot tell this just from observing life because from a human point of view, things don’t always go the way we’d expect [Ecclesiastes 8:14]. Sometimes the wicked prosper. Sometimes the righteous suffer. Outward experiences are no indication of what is in someone’s heart or their eternal destiny. One’s standing before God cannot be measured by their outward condition.
There is, however, one thing that is the same for all. There is one event that happens to the righteous and the wicked, the good and the evil, etc. That event is we go to the dead. We die.
This seemed unfair to Solomon (is an evil). One would expect that those who are “good” would fair better than those who are “bad”. But when we observe life from an “under the sun” perspective (i.e. without God) everyone ends up in the ground. This is because there is no one who is truly “good”. All of us are sinners [Romans 3:23]. And death is the penalty for sin [Romans 6:23].
Many people conclude that death is just part of life. Not true. Death was not God’s original intent. We were created to be alive, not to be dead. But when sin entered the world, death entered with it [Romans 5:12]. Death came about because of sin.
The only way to conquer death is to conquer sin which is exactly why Jesus came to earth and became sin in our place [2 Corinthians 5:21]. Those who believe in their need for forgiveness and in Jesus’ death as atoning for our sin will experience eternal life (i.e. heaven) [John 3:16]. Mistakenly believing that death is nothing more than the end of life leads to eternal death (i.e. hell).
For this reason those who are joined with the living (i.e. are still alive) have hope. Unfortunately, the word “hope” is entirely misunderstood by most people. It has come to be used as a wish or desire that something unlikely will happen but probably will not. But that is not the true definition of the word.
The dictionary definition of “hope” is “expectation for a certain thing to happen.” There is a certainty about hope. While we are alive we still have the opportunity to know God and to have our sins forgiven. Once we are dead we do not. To illustrate, Solomon uses what was likely a proverb in his day: “a living dog is better than a dead lion.”
To understand this proverb we must understand that in the ancient Middle East dogs were not kept as pets. They ran wild and were despised for being lowly. Lions were (and still are) considered fearless and strong. God is saying it would be better to be lowly and alive than to be revered and dead. Why? One simple reason: once we are dead our opportunity to have our sins forgiven is over.
As a side note, this is a great passage for anyone considering suicide. Life may be tough. You may be living a “lowly” life. But being dead is worse, especially if you have not accepted God’s offer of free forgiveness of sins. As long as you’re breathing you have the possibility that not only will your life on this earth get better but also that your life after this earth will be better too.
The living know they will die. So they still have time to get right with God, if they want to. But no such possibility exists for the dead. They know nothing about what is going on on the earth. They have no more share in all that is done under the sun. All their earthly experiences have perished.
This does not mean that the dead no longer exist. We know from other passages in Scripture that the dead are fully aware of their surroundings, other people, and even their past and their future fate [Matthew 25:46; Luke 16:19-31]. But they cannot interact with the earth.
Once dead the possibility of reward is no more. Our fate is sealed when our heart stops beating. If one had their sins forgiven while alive on this earth they will be in heaven. If they didn’t, they won’t. There is no purgatory. There is no reincarnation. There are no second chances.
Such a truth should motivate us to live wisely on this earth. Rather than living for temporary sensational pleasures we should take life seriously, recognizing the importance of the decisions we make – notably our decision about whether to believe in Jesus or not. The fact that we will die yet live should greatly affect the way we live while alive.
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