Take time to introduce yourselves to one another (over drinks or snacks if possible). Then ask group members to answer this question:
Over the course of this term, we’re exploring the ancient book of Ecclesiastes. Though Ecclesiastes comes from a very different culture and time to ours, it touches on some of the most profound issues of humanity.
Ask for a volunteer to read Ecclesiastes 9:1-12 to the group, praying a short prayer that, however much they’ve come to know God, they’d know him better as a result of your time together.
You might want to warn to your group that today’s session concerns themes of dying and death.
You can download this video to watch offline.
Suggested questions to help your discussion.
Some people understand the Teacher’s words in verse 1 to be saying that, on the basis of looking at the world, no-one can be sure what God really thinks of them. Does he love them or hate them?
A better reading is probably that no-one can be sure if there is love or hate ahead of them in their earthly lives. It’s possible to live a good and wise life – and yet for your life to still be characterised by sadness and hatred from others. Additionally, however a person has lived, their life ends in death.
The Teacher conveys a sense of exasperation: a good person can apparently have a sad life and die early, whilst evil people can have relatively happy and long lives. Death seems to make a mockery of it all. It is only the broader picture of a final judgement and the hope that is held out by Jesus in the resurrection that this meaninglessness begins to be addressed.
In verse 10, the Teacher speaks of ‘the realm of the dead.’ This ESV preserves the name given by the ancient Hebrews to this place: ‘Sheol’.
Sheol is mentioned 66 times in the Old Testament. It often refers to the literal grave in which dead people were buried (see, for example, Psalm 18:4-5, 88:48; 2 Samuel 22:5-6). Since no-one escapes death, no-one escapes Sheol, however they have lived their lives. Sometimes a form of life is pictured as continuing in Sheol (see Isaiah 14:9; Ezekiel 32:27) but it is always depicted as a place of utter joylessness.
We cannot draw straight lines between what’s said about Sheol, and the more developed biblical teaching about life after death, either in hell or the new creation. Here, for example, the Teacher says that no-one works in Sheol – but we know that God’s people will work in his new creation, and find it satisfying (see Isaiah 65:21-23).
The Teacher’s basic point is that, so long as we are lying in the grave, we cannot feel (verse 6), work or think (verse 10). These are gifts to us that God calls us to enjoy whilst we can. God’s people will one day enjoy them again in the new creation – but that does not diminish from the fact that these aspects of being alive are nonetheless non-renewable gifts from God to us today.
After speaking of the one certainty we all face, the Teacher reminds us that life is superior to death (see verse 4). He then speaks of finding things to enjoy in this life (verses 7-10).
Ask someone to pray in the light of your discussions for the group.
There are, of course, many other ideas about death and life. Watch this video entitled ‘What should we think about death?’ produced by Humanists UK (2 minutes).
Take time praying in the light of your discussions. Pray especially for anyone you know that is particularly struggling with the reality of death at the moment.
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