This chapter has a Proverbs feel to it, but with with a large does of meaninglessness, of course. Take these first number of verses:
A good name is better than fine perfume,
and the day of death better than the day of birth.
2 It is better to go to a house of mourning
than to go to a house of feasting,
for death is the destiny of everyone;
the living should take this to heart.
3 Frustration is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart.
4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.
Solomon, you’re such a downer. Why would mourning and sadness and frustration and death be better than feasting and pleasure? In a word, perspective. When we’re happy and delighted with what this world offers we are tempted to the buy into the eternality of the temporal. We are tempted to believe that these pleasures are in some way ultimately meaningful. We are tempted to make them more important then our relationship to God. When human mortality, and ours, slaps us in the face, the world’s enticements, and it’s limitations, don’t seem like such a big deal anymore. Only one moment ultimately counts for anything in our lives: the moment our heart stops beating, and what we did to prepare for it. Elsewhere as we’ve seen, Solomon encourages us to enjoy the blessings we find in our few measly days under the sun. That is a gift of God, but don’t be deluded that it all means anything outside of our relationship to our creator, and redeemer.
Some verses later Solomon gets all Aristotelian on us.
13 Consider what God has done:
Who can straighten
what he has made crooked?
14 When times are good, be happy;
but when times are bad, consider this:
God has made the one
as well as the other.
Therefore, a man cannot discover
anything about his future.
15 In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these:
a man righteous perishing in his righteousness,
and a wicked man living long in his wickedness.
16 Do not be overrighteous,
neither be overwise—
why destroy yourself?
17 Do not be overwicked,
and do not be a fool—
why die before your time?
18 It is good to grasp the one
and not let go of the other.
Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes.
The mean, the middle between two extremes, is foundational to Aristotle’s ethics, and this was written about 700 years before Aristotle. To him, ethics were determined in utilitarian terms, perceiving one way better than another. Solomon does the same thing, but his motivation, the fear of God, transcends all utilitarian motives because it means we trust the goodness and love of God for us.
I think avoiding extremes is built into the phrase, “a man cannot discover anything about his future.” Jesus could have been thinking about this chapter when he exhorted us not to worry about tomorrow because we have no idea what will happen tomorrow. This brings to mind Pascal’s assessment of human imagination:
Imagination is the dominant faculty in man. . . . It makes people believe in, or doubt, or even deny reason. It suspends control of the senses by making them feel.
This is quoted from, Blaise Pascal: The Mind on Fire, and it appears from the rest of the paragraph (page 55) that Pascal himself could have had this chapter in mind as well. He tells how a successful man will live in the confidence that the future will always be as the present based on how his imagination makes him feel. He cannot know things tomorrow will be just as good as today. In fact he can’t know anything, nothing, zero, zip, nada about tomorrow, but lives as if he did. The person who worries or has had misfortune does the same thing but in the opposite direction because of what he feels based on what he imagines. Yet Solomon points out the obvious: we can’t know anything about our future, yet our imagination deludes us into thinking we can. Then we live in our imagination as if it were reality.
Why are young children never worried or depressed? Because they live in the eternal present, which is the only thing a human being can know for certain, what is this very moment. To think we can know any other moment, is a lie, and one fueled by our imagination. If we really trust God, we will refuse to live in other moments and the feelings they engender. We will trust our heavenly Father and live in the joy of now and the promise of an eternal future with him, a future that makes everything in this life, good and bad, almost nothing in comparison.