Dealing with life’s enigmas


Ecclesiastes 8:2-17

IN THIS chapter, the Preacher continues with what he does best – pointing out starkly the various seemingly insoluble enigmas in this existence under the sun. He begins his discourse by looking at earthly authority, stressing the value of showing allegiance to the king by obeying his commands (8:2).

Although our modern democratic government is vastly different from the ancient oriental despotism that prevailed in the Preacher’s world, the point that is made is nonetheless relevant. Secular governments are ordained by God, and our attitude towards them say something of our attitude towards the one who instituted them.

The Apostle Paul made precisely the same point many centuries later in his letter to the Christians in Rome when he asserted quite categorically that “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established” (Romans 13:1).

However, submission to the king (or any earthly authority) is never blind obedience, and the state to which we pledge our allegiance can never be our ultimate sovereign. Even in the context in which resistance against certain unjust policies implemented by the king is virtually impossible and even dangerous, the Preacher advocates the right to protest. But the Preacher is quick to point out that “The wise heart will know the proper time and procedure” (8:5).

Herein lies the enigma. God has ordained the government, and we are to submit to it. Yet, the government is not infallible and can never be the supreme authority to which we must pledge our unconditional loyalty. The government is worthy of our respect, but it should not be idolised. It is worthy of our support, and yet there are times when that support must be withdrawn. Such are the ambiguities of life!

In the rest of the chapter, the Preacher turns to other enigmas that life presents which so often baffle and frustrate us. Chiefly, the Preacher points to the enigma of the injustices of life, which he describes with transparent honesty in verse 14:

“righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless”. Only those who are totally dead to the world or those who are deluded can say that they have not witnessed this enigma and that it does not disturb them.

Life is sometimes so unfair, and justice is often so illusive. At times it is as if life itself has conspired against us by reversing our fortunes! Examples can be easily multiplied. How is it possible to cope with life’s enigmas over which we have no control? In the words of poet Ruth Calcin, how can we, when tossed about by the fierce waves of life’s irreconcilable contradictions, “not drown in the sea of perplexity”? Has the Preacher an answer? I believe he does.

The first step in dealing with the enigmas of life is to recognise that they escape our comprehension. Because
human beings are searchers of meaning, we strain to comprehend the tragedies or contradictions in life – to discover their significance and meaning. But the Preacher reminds us that there is a limit to what we are able to comprehend: “Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it” (8:17c). This realisation (perhaps “acknowledgement” is more accurate) is itself liberating!

Next, the Preacher asserts that God is sovereign, that He is in control of human history. We can better cope with our ignorance of what the future holds only when we know (with utter certainty – the certainty of faith) who holds the future.

The enigmas and injustices of life do not have the final word. God alone has the final word; in the end, His justice will prevail and His purpose will be fulfilled. And because this is the case, because God’s justice will prevail over every pseudo-justice and injustice, there is no reason to envy the wicked. The Preacher alludes to this in verse 12: “Although a wicked man commits a hundred crimes and still lives a long time, I know that it will go better with God-fearing men, who are reverent before God” (see also verse 13).

The person who accepts the mystery of life and the sovereignty of God is ready to receive life as the gift from God. Only the true believer can do this, for only the eyes of faith can perceive that God is over and above life’s vicissitudes and exigencies and that He is in control. Only the believer, therefore, can truly enjoy life: “So I recommend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life that God has given him under the sun” (v 15).

There is a sharp contrast between the attitude of the atheistic nihilist and that of the believer, although both may on the surface appear to relish and enjoy life. The nihilist’s life is characterised by a hedonistic self-abandonment and the wanton pursuit of pleasure. He does this in order to shield himself from the harsh realities of life, and its apparent lack of meaning. Ironically, the nihilist enjoys life in order to escape from it.

The believer lives his life to the full, enjoying its simple pleasures (and it is the simple pleasures in life that are always the soundest!) because he recognises that everything that he has – food, drink, work, leisure, family and friends – comes from God. They are given for his enjoyment. He accepts them with thanksgiving and gratitude. And it is this attitude that will put a stop to all his complaining.

Knowing that his life is in the hands of God, the believer will always be aware and thankful for the simple blessings, the little graces, despite the stormy enigmas of life. Unlike the nihilist, the believer enjoys life’s simple pleasures as a joyful participant in the great and mysterious plan of the Creator.

Dr Roland Chia, Dean of Postgraduate Studies at Trinity Theological College, worships at Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.


The enigmas and injustices of life do not have the final word. God alone has the final word; in the end, His justice will prevail and His purpose will be fulfilled.