When Life’s Brief and Unpredictable (Ecclesiastes 9:1-12)


Let me tell you how I think life is supposed to work. If you are a good person, love God, and do your best, then your life should go well. If you’re a bad person, and you hate God, and you’re undisciplined and lazy, then your life shouldn’t go well. The better you are, the better your life should go. It’s really like when you go to a candy machine. You put the money in; if you put the right amount of money in the machine, then the machine whirs, the candy drops, and you walk away getting what you paid for.

Here’s how life actually seems to work. If you are a good person and love God and do your best, all kinds of bad things still seem to happen. I know all kinds of people who deserve bad things, but their lives seem to be going pretty well. On the other hand, I know people who seem to do everything right, but they’ve had nothing but trouble in their lives. Every week I meet with good people who live well, but face huge problems in their lives: sickness, unemployment, burnout, family problems, and more.

So, in contrast to the way I would expect life to work, here’s what life is actually like: It’s like when you go to a candy machine, you put in the money, and nothing happens.

That’s essentially the message of the passage that we have in front of us. We’ve been studying the book of Ecclesiastes, and the Teacher has been trying to draw some conclusions. He’s observed life, and he wants us to confront the hard reality before he tells us what we should do. This passage confronts us with the hard reality of how little we know, and the vast extent of what we cannot handle. You are not in control. Life does not work the way we’d expect.

So this morning I want to do two things and two things only. First, let’s look at the problem so that we can be sure we’re seeing life as it is rather than how we wish it was. Second, let’s look at how to live in light of the brevity and unpredictability of life.

So first, let’s look at problem.

The Teacher says in verse 1 of chapter 9:

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.

Here’s what he’s saying. The Teacher has just been examining the seemingly random nature of life. In chapters 7 and 8 he’s been struggling with the question of why bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. How can a good and powerful God allow this to happen? As he comes to chapter 9, he says he’s been thinking about this. He’s come to two conclusions. One: our lives are in the hand of God. God is sovereign. Life is not random. God is in control of what happens, even if we can’t figure it out. So far, so good. But he also comes to a second conclusion: nobody can tell whether God loves us or is angry with us. If you just looked at the events of life, you would really have no idea whether God is for you or against you, because life is very harsh.

St. Teresa of Avila is supposed to have said, “God, if that’s how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few! “That’s not too far off from what the Teacher is saying. For good measure, the Teacher deals with two topics that really bring home the difficulty of trying to live in this world. There are a couple of things that are stacked against us that really make it difficult to know whether God is for us or against us.

First: life is brief. See what the Teacher says in verses 2 to 6. Let me summarize what he says: we all die, and the dead have nothing. In verses 2 and 3, he says that the same event happens to everyone. It happens to both the righteous and the wicked. Everyone dies. In verses 4 to 6, he says that it’s much better to be a live. Of course, we say. The living have hope, he says in verse 4. They didn’t think much of dogs back in that day, but they thought a lot of lions. The Teacher says that a live dog is still way better than a dead lion. The dead, the Teacher says, lose everything.

  • no memory
  • no more reward
  • no remembrance of their lives
  • no more emotions – no love, hate, or envy

They will have no more share in everything that takes place in this world.

The Teacher is saying that death is kind of a bum deal. It’s hard to know if God is for us or against us when we all have to confront the brutal reality of death. As good as life is, there’s still death to deal with at the end. It’s like if someone dropped you from the CN Tower. The ride down would be all kinds of fun, but the ending not so much. If you think about it, life is like that. No matter what you experience in this life, there’s still the brutal reality of death at the end.

A medical student once came to see his pastor after dissecting his first cadaver. The student was shaken from the experience. As he cut through the muscle and other tissue to expose the internal organs, he said to himself, “If this is all that we become at death, what is the point of anything?”

This is all pretty depressing, but it’s reality. The Teacher isn’t going to settle for simple answers here. When you look at life, you have to realize that we have some things stacked against us, not the least of which is death.

But there’s more. It’s not just death that’s stacked against us. In verses 11 to 12, he says that life is not only brief; it’s also unpredictable. Verses 11 and 12 say:

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.

I don’t know any passage that does a better job of confronting the lies we tell ourselves about the way that life is supposed to work. If you’re at a race, which runner do you think is going to win? The fast one, of course. But not always. In the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, American runner Lola Jones was expected to win the gold in hurdles. She was known to be the fastest in the world. But she tripped on the ninth hurdle and came in not first but seventh. The race is not to the swift. Life is unpredictable.

Which army wins in battle? Goliath was huge and strong. He had won many battles. He had impressive armor. But a young, inexperienced rookie with no equipment came out and took him on, and won. The mighty Goliath died. The battle isn’t always to the strong. Life is unpredictable.

Who’s going to succeed in life? The Teacher gives three types of people we think are going to do well: the wise, the intelligent, and the skillful. These are voted most likely to succeed in school. Everyone recognizes their talents. But go to a high school reunion years later, and who has actually made it? Not the people that you would have expected. Life is unpredictable.

You are not in control. We are not in control of our destinies. Accidents can cause us to fall short of our goal. Time and chance happen to everyone. Life is not only brief, but it’s unpredictable.

The Teacher gives one more example of this in verse 12:

For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.

You’ve probably seen videos of the disaster in Japan. When the earthquake began, people were going about their business. There was no real warning. Disaster fell suddenly upon them. It’s like birds who are taken in a snare or fish that are taken in a net. There’s no warning. Disaster can overtake us like that.

I realize that this is depressing, but it’s so important that we realize this. The Teacher is helping us grasp that life does not work the way that we expect. Good things to not always happen to good people. Bad things do not always happen to bad people. Life is brief and uncertain. Looking at the events of life, it’s hard to know judging only from the events if God is for us or against us.

In a minute we’re going to look at what the Teacher says in light of this reality. What do we do with the fact that life is brief and uncertain? Do we just throw up our hands in despair? How are we supposed to live knowing that this is what life is like?

Before we do that, though, I need to make a couple of pastoral applications here. The first one is to encourage you to really get this so that you’re not surprised when the tough times come, and that you don’t go looking for easy answers when there aren’t any. There are whole groups of people who promise that if you are a good Christian, that you will experience good health, financial prosperity, and happiness. Your marriage will flourish, your kids will all get As and get married and have no problems. You won’t get sick. You will live long and prosper. It’s like a Christian version of Napoleon Dynamite’s campaign promise: live right, and all your dreams will come true. That’s not what the Bible teaches. I’ve been pastor long enough to know that really horrible things happen to really good people for no apparent reason. We need to stop being surprised by suffering.

The other thing I want to do is to say that we need a way of living that can face up to these realities – including death. I once brought home a carload of sod in my car. My car isn’t built to carry a heavy load. I got the sod home, but the shocks were at their full capacity. That car wasn’t meant to carry that kind of weight. We need a faith that can carry the weight of the type of life that the Teacher describes. We need a faith that can withstand the brief and uncertain nature of life. Otherwise we have a faith that’s not going to be of any use when the hard times come.

How do we live in light of this brief and unpredictable life?

Verses 7 to 10 say:

Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.
Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.
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. 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.

The first time you read this, you may wonder how you can get from what he’s just said – life is brief and unpredictable – to this. This seems to contradict everything that he’s been saying about the frustration of life under the sun. But what he says here is very important, and we need to hear this.

Let me give you an example. You know that we were away over March Break. We had a great time. The last day I was wishing that we could stay another week. Our place was great. I was with my family. The weather was beautiful. Everything was absolutely perfect. But it was all ending, and the next day we would be going home. I could have spent the last day not enjoying the sunshine and family and vacation. In fact, there were a couple of times I slipped into this during the day. Or, I could squeeze every moment of enjoyment from the vacation as long as it lasted, not in spite of the fact that my vacation was brief and unpredictable but because of it. That’s what the Teacher is saying here. Instead of falling into despair over the brevity and unpredictability of life, use that knowledge to enjoy every minute that God gives you. Enjoy every good gift that God has given you as long as it lasts.

The Teacher mentions a few pleasures we should enjoy.

One is food and drink. Don’t rush through your meals, the Teacher says. Don’t gulp down your food. God made us so that we don’t just eat to live; he made us so we can enjoy it. He’s provided us with a rich variety of fruit, vegetables, grains, meats, and spices, all for our enjoyment. So “eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart.” Psalm 104:15 says that God gives “wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart.”

Then, in verse 8, “Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.” In the Teacher’s time, white garments and oil were symbols of joy. When people were sad they wore sackcloth, and they put ashes on their head. It’s like the Teacher is saying: get out the nice clothes from the back of the closet. Do your hair if you have any. Get out there and enjoy the night. Enjoy your life.

He then gets more specific: “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love.” I have to be honest and confess that I did not always appreciate my wife as I should have. There was a time when I was more likely to grumble about my wife than to enjoy her. It’s hard to imagine now, because I honestly see my wife as one of God’s greatest gifts in my life. I have no reason to complain. The Teacher says that we should not give up until we get to the point at which we can find enjoyment and pleasure and contentment in the marriage that we have.

For some of you right now, this is hard to imagine. Trust me: it’s worth fighting for. The Teacher isn’t all sentimental and unrealistic about marriage. You’ll notice how the verse ends: “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.” Your life is not going to be without difficulties – so find joy in your marriage.

There are people who think that true spirituality is joyless. If you laugh, you’re in danger of compromising your faith. When you smile, they think, the devil smiles. Nothing can be further from the truth. Enjoying God’s gifts is true spirituality.

C.S. Lewis wrote a fictional book from the perspective of a senior devil trying to tempt a junior devil. I’ll never forget the senior devil chiding the junior devil because he allowed his patient – the human that he was trying to tempt – to read a book he enjoyed, and take an enjoyable walk and have some tea. “Where you so ignorant as not to see the danger in this?” he asks. “How could you have failed to see that a real pleasure was the last thing you ought to have let him meet?” There’s something profound there. We were meant to enjoy this life, not despite the brevity and unpredictability of life, but because of it.

How do we do this? How can we live so that even though life is brief and unpredictable, we can find joy in this life? In the beginning, God created the world so that we would love him and enjoy him and all of his good gifts forever. Sin entered the world and destroyed all of this. But now Jesus has died, and he’s risen again to save us from our enslavement to sin, so that we could live life as he intended from the beginning: enjoying our food and drink; wearing the best clothes; enjoying our spouses; finding joy and peace even when things are hard.

When we see that life is a gift from God, we will enjoy the gift. When we see that life is brief, but that God has granted eternal life to those who accept Christ’s gift, then we’ll understand that death is not the end. When we see that God is for us, we’ll have a faith that will withstand even the most difficult times. We’ll find joy in this brief and unpredictable life.

Former White House secretary Tony Snow returned to work after five weeks of cancer treatment. He said, “Not everybody will survive cancer. But on the other hand, you have got to realize that you’ve got the gift of life, so make the most of it.” That’s what the Teacher is saying. And by God’s grace, and especially because of what Jesus has done, that’s exactly what we’ll do.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada