There Is No Way to Find Out What Is Good to Do (Eccl 6:10-8:17)
A life of toil amounts to a chasing after wind, for the results of work are not permanent in the world as the Teacher knows it. So he begins a search to find out what is best to do with the time he has. As seen earlier in the book, this block of material is divided into sections demarked by a phrase repeated at the end of each exploration. In frustration of the Teacher’s hope, that phrase is “not find out,” or its equivalent rhetorical question, “who can find out?”
The Ultimate Results of Our Actions (Eccl. 7:1-14)
Our toil ends with our death. Ecclesiastes therefore recommends that we spend some serious time in the cemetery (Eccl. 7:1–6). Can we see any real advantage that one tomb has over another? Some people whistle past the graveyard, refusing to consider its lessons. Their laughter is like the crackling of burning thorns, as it is consumed in the flames (Eccl. 7:6).
Because our time is short, we cannot find out what impact we may have on the world. We cannot even find out why today is different from yesterday (Eccl. 7:10), let alone what tomorrow may bring. It makes sense to enjoy whatever good comes of our toil while we live, but we have no promise that the final end is good, for “God has made the one as well as the other, so that mortals may not find out anything that will come after them” (Eccl. 7:14).
One application we can draw from our ignorance of our legacy, is that good ends are no justification for evil means. For we cannot see the ends of all the actions we take, and the power to mitigate the consequences of our means could come at any time. Politicians who appease public opinion now at the cost of public harm later, financial officers who hide losses this quarter in the hope of making it up next quarter, graduates who lie on a job application with the hope of succeeding in jobs they are not qualified for — all of them are counting on futures they do not have the power to bring about. Meanwhile, they are doing harm now than can never truly be erased even if their hopes do come true.
Good and Evil (Eccl. 7:15-28)
So we must try to act now according to the good. Yet we cannot really know whether any action we take is wholly good or wholly evil. When we imagine we are acting righteously, wickedness may creep in, and vice versa (Eccl. 7:16-18). For “surely there is no one on earth so righteous as to do good without ever sinning” (Eccl. 7:20). The truth of good and evil “is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?” (Eccl. 7:24, emphasis added). As if to emphasize this difficulty, the characteristic phrase “not found” is repeated again twice in Eccl. 7:28.
The best we can do is to fear God (Eccl. 7:18); that is to say, to avoid arrogance and self-righteousness. A good self-diagnostic is to examine whether we have to resort to twisted logic and complicated schemes to justify our actions. “God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes” (Eccl. 7:29). Work has many complexities, many factors that have to be taken into account, and moral certainty is usually impossible. But ethical pretzel logic is almost always a bad sign.
Power and Justice (Eccl. 8:1-17)
The exercise of power is a fact of life, and we have a duty to obey those in authority over us (Eccl. 8:2-5). Yet we do not know whether they will use their authority justly. Quite possibly, they will use their power to harm others (Eccl. 8:9). Justice is perverted. The righteous are punished, and the wicked are rewarded (Eccl. 8:10-14).
In the midst of this uncertainty, the best we can do is to fear God (Eccl. 8:13) and enjoy the opportunities for happiness that he gives us. “I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun” (Eccl. 8:15).
As in the previous section, the marker phrase “not find out” is repeated three times at the end of this topic. “No one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out” (Eccl. 8:17). This brings to an end the Teacher’s search to find out what is good to do with the limited time we have. Although he has discovered some good practices, the overall result is that he could not find out what is truly meaningful.