The lectionary begins the first reading at v.14; let’s pick up a little before that.
“Though sinners do evil a hundred times and prolong their lives, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they stand in fear before him, but it will not be well with the wicked, neither will they prolong their days like a shadow, because they do not stand in fear before God. There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity” (8:12-14).
We’ve seen this tension/contradiction before: it will be well with those who fear God, but not the wicked; the God fearers and wicked often get what they don’t deserve. Why doesn’t the teacher abandon divine justice/retribution? Perhaps because the teacher is even more convinced of his incapacity to discern what God is up to (e.g., 8:16-17).
We might wonder if the teacher is encouraging us to embrace a particular sort of freedom: if you’re going to act justly, don’t do it because that way you’ll succeed, or because God will reward you, or because you’ll get the desired results, or because it will matter in the end, or because it will be remembered. Just do it. The Book of Job opens with the accuser asking whether Job serves God for nothing; the teacher, in his own way, has aligned himself with Job.
And, when God gives the opportunity: “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. 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” (9:7-10).
Ecclesiastes can be read as encouraging conformity. In his context the teacher judged that the wise course. But to assume conformity in all contexts would be to ignore the teacher’s exploratory approach. “…the wise mind will know the time and way,” and if “for everything there is a season” (3:1), if there’s a time for conformity… “Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might.” It’s only stupid if it doesn’t work.