There is No Way to Know What Comes Afterwards (Eccl 9:1-11:6)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

Perhaps it would be possible to work out what is best to do in life if it were possible to know what comes afterwards. So the Teacher searches for knowledge about death (Eccl. 9:1-6), Sheol (Eccl. 9:7-10), the time of death (Eccl. 9:11-12), what comes after death (Eccl. 13-10:15), the evil that might come after death (Eccl. 10:16-11:2), and the good that might come (Eccl. 11:3-6). Again, a repeated marker phrase — in this case “do not know” and its equivalent “no knowledge” — divides the material into sections.

The Teacher finds that it is simply not possible to know what lies ahead. “The dead know nothing” (Eccl. 9:5). “There is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (Eccl. 9:10). “Man does not know his time… the sons of men are ensnared at an evil time when it suddenly falls on them” (Eccl. 9:12, NASB. The NRSV gives an idiosyncratic translation that obscures the characteristic phrase.). “No one knows what is to happen, and who can tell anyone what the future holds?” (Eccl. 10:14). “You do not know what disaster may happen on earth” (Eccl. 11:2). “You do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good” (Eccl. 11:5–6).

Despite our colossal ignorance about the future, the Teacher finds some things that are good to do while we have the chance. We will explore only those passages that are particularly relevant to work.

Live, Breathe, Eat, Sleep Your Work (Click to watch)

Ken Done wakes up in the night with ideas he can't wait to try. He even paints on his dining room table. While they are both past what some call “retirement age,” Mr. Done and his wife, Judy, have over 100 employees working for The Ken Done Group of Companies based in Sydney, Australia.

Throw Yourself Into Your Work Wholeheartedly (Eccl. 9:10)

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (Eccl. 9:10). Although we cannot know the final result of our work, there is no point letting this paralyze us. Humans are created to work (Genesis 2:15), we need to work to survive, and so we might as well work with gusto. The same goes for enjoying the fruits of our work, whatever they may be. “Eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do” (Eccl. 9:7).

Accept Success and Failure as a Part of Life (Eccl. 9:11-12)

It's Tough to Go Up Against the Establishment (Click to Watch)

John Solheim, CEO of Phoenix-based Ping Golf, recalls when the United States Golf Association outlawed products he and his father had worked over a decade to develop. These renegades persevered and today they are leaders within their industry.

First, we should not fool ourselves into thinking either that our success is due to our own merits or that our failure is due to our own shortcomings. “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 the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all” (Eccl. 9:11). Success or failure may be due to chance. This is not to say that hard work and ingenuity aren’t important. They prepare us to make the most of the chances of life, and they may create opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Yet one who succeeds at work may be no more deserving than another who fails. For example, Microsoft had a crack at success largely because of IBM’s offhand decision to use the MS-DOS operating system for a backwater project called the personal computer. Bill Gates later reflected, “Our timing in setting up the first software company aimed at personal computers was essential to our success. The timing wasn't entirely luck, but without great luck it couldn't have happened.” Asked why he had started a software company just at the time IBM was taking its chances with a personal computer, he replied, “I was born at the right place and time.”[1]

Work Diligently and Invest Wisely (Eccl. 10:18-11:6)

Persistence Pays (Click to Watch)

Diligence, persistence and growth through retained earnings moved Ping Golf from the Solheim garage to its 35-acre campus in Phoenix. From the father-son team, the company has grown to over 900 employees who work each day making some of the world’s most popular golf clubs.

This passage contains the most direct financial advice to be found anywhere in the Bible. First, be diligent, otherwise your household economy will collapse like a leaky, rotten roof (Eccl. 10:18). Second, understand that in this life financial well-being does matter. “Money meets every need” (Eccl. 10:19) can be read in a cynical manner, but the text does not say that money is the only thing that matters. The point is simply that money is necessary for dealing with all kinds of issues. To put it in modern terms, if my car needs a new transmission, or my daughter needs college tuition, or I want to take my family on a vacation, it is going to take money. This is not greed or materialism; it is common sense. Third, be careful about people in authority (Eccl. 10:20). If you belittle your boss or even a customer, you may live to regret it. Fourth, diversify your investments (Eccl. 11:1–2). “Send out your bread upon the waters” does not refer to charitable giving, but to investments; in this case, the “waters” represent a venture in overseas trading. Thus, giving portions to “seven” or “eight” refers to diverse investments, “for you do not know what disaster may happen on earth” (Eccl. 11:2). Fifth, don’t be overly timid about investing (Eccl. 11:3–5). What will happen, will happen, and you cannot control that (Eccl. 11:3). But this should not frighten us into putting money under a mattress where it yields nothing. Instead, we should find the courage to take reasonable risks. “Whoever observes the wind will not plant; whoever regards the clouds will not reap” (Eccl. 11:4). Sixth, understand that success is in God’s hands. But you don’t know what plans or purposes he has, so don’t try to second-guess him (Eccl. 11:5). Seventh, be persistent (Eccl. 11:6). Don’t work hard for a little while and then say, “I tried that, and it didn’t work.”

The Teacher’s search for knowledge about the future ends at Eccl. 11:5–6 with a triple repetition of the marker phrase “not know.” This reminds us that although working wholeheartedly, accepting success and failure as part of life, and working diligently and investing wisely are good practices, they are merely adaptations to deal with our ignorance of the future. If we truly knew how our actions would play out, we could plan confidently for success. If we knew which investments would turn out well, we would not need to diversify as a hedge against systemic losses. It is hard to know whether to hang our heads in sorrow for the disasters that may befall us in this fallen world, or to praise God that it is still possible to muddle through, and maybe even to do well, in such a world. Or is the truth a bit of both?