During my years as a student at Dallas Theological Seminary, one of our most esteemed homiletics (the science of preaching) professors took his turn speaking in chapel. He was a rather colorful fellow, and we all wondered how he would begin his sermon in front of hundreds of students gathered there. Additionally, the entire cadre of fellow professors were daily seated upon the stage behind the featured speaker – with the terrifying appearance of a choir of theological geniuses who had memorized the entire Scriptures, probably even in the original languages as well.
He steadied himself at the podium, and in a strong voice said, “You only go around once in this life, so you have to grab for all the gusto you can get. I think that’s good theology!”
What?!? The only sound was that of the school president’s dentures hitting the floor.
Many of you may not be old enough to recall that this “grab for gusto / once in life” statement was the main line featured in beer commercials in the 70s for Schlitz Beer. The professor went on to share passages from the book of Ecclesiastes, like this one …
Ecclesiastes 3:12 – I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.
I don’t remember what he said about these verses, other than that this life is the gift of God to be enjoyed in spite of the abundant sorrows within a sin-infested world. He finished by telling us we should all take our wives out for ice cream and order TWO scoops, not just one. That stuck with everyone, and from that time forward he was referenced by all the seminary guys, not by his name, but simply as “Dr. Two Scoops.”
But Solomon no sooner gets this “live big” statement written down than he is back to the sad realities of the material world, filled with injustice and the certainty of death for every living creature, including man.
14 I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.
15 Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account.
16 And I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgment—wickedness was there, in the place of justice—wickedness was there.
17 I said to myself, “God will bring into judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed.”
18 I also said to myself, “As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. 19 Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. 20 All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”
22 So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?
This whole subject of death is rather … ah … morbid – yes, that’s the word for it. Dust to dust, that is rather blunt. And though the Old Testament in multiple places uses this phrase, I’ve always found it too difficult to use the standard graveside committal benediction: “For as much as it has pleased our Heavenly Father in His wise providence to take unto Himself our beloved __________, we therefore commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” And even though this canned liturgy goes on to talk about the blessed hope of Christ, I don’t think the grieving loved ones get beyond the dust and ashes part of it very well.
Have you ever struggled with thanatophobia? With what? My spell check did not recognize this word either! And though I’ve been known to make up my own compound Greek words, this one does come from the original Greek (thanatos) for “death” … or as here, the fear of death.
This is a common emotion. Death is indeed the great enemy. And from all that can be known and seen with the eyes from the material, physical world, the death of man and animals is all the same. Decomposition follows the final breath. And Solomon asks a valid question, “Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”
Hey, shouldn’t the inspired Scriptures be a bit more affirmative? But two things to remember. Again, the writer is speaking primarily from what can be observed in this world, under the sun.
And secondly, there was a very undeveloped idea in Old Testament times about the afterlife, even amongst God’s people. There was a general sense of a spirit life after the physical world, but it was not clear at all. God had not yet revealed the details that we know to be true about the payment for sin and assurance of salvation in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus.
We can feel a bit better about Solomon’s actual, personal view when we read later in 12:6-7, “Remember him—before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
But this is for sure: We can be so thankful to live in a time of God’s completed revelation. Though we note also the futility of life, we know also of the finished work of Jesus Christ to accomplish our salvation and give us a specific hope for eternal life.