Despite Life’s Unpredictability, Keep Striving in Wisdom
We saw in the opening of the first subsection of this last major section of the book that we can’t really figure out all that God is working out with people in His great plan. There’s a lot He hasn’t let us in on, particularly when it comes to individual lives, including our own (see 8:16–9:3). We see a little more of that here in this second subsection (Ecclesiastes 9:10–11:6)—with things not always going as might be expected. A great deal of mystery yet remains. Outcomes in this age are uncertain. But that must not prevent us from following the directive we were given at the end of the previous subsection in Ecclesiastes 9:10—to strive to do whatever we do with all of our strength and ability. We must live boldly, yet with wisdom—including needed caution about the limitations of human ability and wisdom, and understanding of how to navigate this life. The current, second subsection is rather lengthy, yet is naturally further subdivided into three parts, as we are following in our readings (Ecclesiastes 9:10–10:3; Ecclesiastes 10:4-20; Ecclesiastes 11:1-6).
As was mentioned before, Dr. Walter Kaiser’s outline of the book places verse 10 at the beginning of the present subsection. However, the verse actually appears to end the previous subsection (and comments on verse 10 are found with those covering Ecclesiastes 8:16–9:10). Yet verse 10 can be regarded as transitional, since the need to give it our all underlies much of the present subsection. This is why we are reading it again here. Still, it appears that the current subsection properly begins with verse 11, Solomon entering upon new material with the words “I returned and saw under the sun that…” This “return” is following his investigation of the previous subsection “to see the business that is done on earth” (Ecclesiastes 8:16-17), where he realized that no one can really gain a handle on it all.
He had further come to see that life is quite unpredictable, considering that the righteous and wicked often have the same experiences in life all the way to ultimately ending in death (Ecclesiastes 9:1-3). So he counseled that we need to be sure to enjoy life while we have it and make the most of it, doing what we can to prepare for the inevitable (verses 4-10).
Yet in all this we need to keep in mind that much that happens remains beyond our control—and Solomon now goes on in verses 11-12 to show that this life is unpredictable every which way. The fastest person doesn’t always win the race. He might trip and fall. He might get distracted. He might think he doesn’t need to exert himself. He might not even show up. We’ve probably heard the fable of the tortoise and the hare—seeing that slow and steady wins the race. But of course that won’t guarantee winning the race either. The swiftest typically do win (just look at so many of the great Olympic champions who normally do win the gold medals). And the verse does not say otherwise. It means that the swiftest do not necessarily win. Likewise, the strongest don’t always win the fight. Remember David and Goliath? And people who are wise and smart—even in matters of money—don’t always end up prosperous. They may not even manage to eke out a living. Those who can best do the job are sometimes passed over. Someone else may have had a better “in.” Or the skillful person might have just had a bad day—failing in the instance he needed to prove himself. It just goes that way sometimes. The listed qualities in verse 11 are good to have, but things don’t always fall out as expected. It just depends. Circumstances change things.
Solomon remarks, as his words are often translated, “But time and chance happen to them all” (end of verse 11—more on this in a moment). And he goes on to say that man “does not know his time,” showing that people are like fish caught in a net or birds caught in a snare—“so the sons of men are snared in an evil time, when it falls suddenly upon them” (verse 12). The reference here is to calamity, even death, but not necessarily death. It could be anything. Even if a person puts forth his or her best effort in work, strategy, knowledge and wisdom while there is life (as in verse 10), that will not guarantee success in these and shield against calamity.
The discussion of time coming upon people in verses 11-12 recalls the earlier poem about the seasons of life in chapter 3, with there being “a time for every purpose under heaven” (verse 1). The Hebrew word used in conjunction with time in Ecclesiastes 9:11, pega‘, translated “chance,” does not denote randomness but simply any event that might happen. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary says that “it contains less the idea of haphazard occurrence than an event that we meet, whether anticipated or unanticipated” (Wright, note on verses 11-12). A footnote here further explains that the word “is used elsewhere only in 1 Kings 5:4, where it is qualified by ‘evil,’ i.e., some adversity that has happened. The corresponding verb [yiqreh, rendered “happen” in Ecclesiastes 9:11] is used in the sense of ‘meet,’ as in the old English ‘I chanced upon’ (e.g., 1 Sam[uel] 10:5).” Furthermore, “time and chance” in Ecclesiastes 9:11 “are not presented as two separate contingencies, but as a single factor” (NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, note on verse 11). The reference is to meeting up with some happening at a particular time— that is, simply, circumstance.
The Holman Old Testament Commentary (Moore) quotes The NIV Application Commentary: Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs (Iain Provan) in this regard: “The NIV’s ‘chance’ (pega‘) is an unhappy choice of translation, since this word connotes an impersonal and random force, whereas Qohelet is clear throughout the book that human fate lies ultimately in God’s hands, no matter how random and impersonal what befalls us may appear. The verbal form pg‘ means ‘to meet, encounter.’ A pega‘ is simply something we encounter on the path of life—a circumstance or situation over which we have no control” (p. 110).
The event could possibly be random, but we must remember the context of verse 1—that whatever happens is “in the hand of God.” So with any random occurrence God is still sovereign, as it is always His decision whether to allow that occurrence to proceed or not. He can always intervene—and He does intervene for those who love and obey Him, causing all things to work together for their ultimate good (Romans 8:28). Some, with a misconception about “time and chance,” imagine the righteous could die in an accident as the victim of random occurrence apart from God’s purposes. So here would be God as the Master Potter in whose hands we are (Isaiah 64:8)—as He molds and shapes us for what He is preparing us for in His Kingdom. And then some random occurrence takes us out, with God saying, “Oops! Lost that one.” Really? Of course not. We need to realize that Ecclesiastes 9:11 does not even say there could be random occurrences. And even if it allows for that possibility, as it probably does, it is, again, always up to God whether to permit that happening. None of us are resigned to fate. Rather, we remain in the hands of our loving God.
That being said, God will allow many things to befall us that we do not anticipate. And for those in the world at large, who are unrepentant, He may allow them to be swept away by calamities not specifically directed toward them, as we see in the example Jesus gave about the Tower of Siloam falling on people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time (Luke 13:4). He warned, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” This is not to say that the righteous could not have a tower fall on them, but it would only be with assurance that they remain in God’s watchful care and are ready for the future He has prepared for them in His Kingdom (compare Isaiah 57:1-2, where the death of the righteous is within God’s keeping and care).
All of this shows that while we are to live with boldness, striving with our might, doing what we can in our endeavors, this must be tempered with wisdom in maintaining a healthy sense of uncertainty. Of course we should plan, but we need to know that our plans won’t necessarily work out—so we need to be flexible. We should try to have contingency plans as prudent precaution. Still, we can’t plan for every eventuality. We can’t even imagine everything that might happen. We need to know that “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” We need to recognize that whatever happens is ultimately up to God—and we don’t know all that He will decide. One of Solomon’s proverbs stated, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth” (Proverbs 27:1). And the apostle James expanded on this, telling us we must not boast in personal plans, which is vanity, but must keep in mind God’s sovereignty over the future (James 4:13-16). Thus, it really comes down to this: Above all, we need to maintain a right relationship with God, so that we remain in His care when the unexpected hits us. This is the very counsel the conclusion of Ecclesiastes gives us.
The proper mind-set and approach here is a part of wisdom. Despite the limitations of wisdom we’ve seen—not being able to figure everything out (Ecclesiastes 8:16-17), not even always gaining needed food to eat (Ecclesiastes 9:11), and still meeting with this life’s calamities and even death (verses 1-3, 10-12)—wisdom is not useless. In fact, it’s part of wisdom to understand this—that wisdom is helpful even though it can’t solve everything, as Solomon next lays out in verses 13-18.
Here he gives the case, whether actual or thought up, of a small city besieged by the forces of a great king but delivered by a poor wise man though he’s forgotten (verses 13-16). The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries volume on Ecclesiastes (Eaton) says that verse 15 might be translated to mean that a poor wise man’s wisdom possibly could have saved the city but that no one thought of him (see GNT, NEB, and NASB footnote). However, as the Preaching the Word commentary footnotes, this translation requires an interpretive choice it describes as “reading between the lines,” and without more context it seems best to go with the common translation—that the poor man did deliver the city and was then forgotten (Ryken, p. 295). Here then was a case where the battle did not go to the strong (as in verse 11)—though this may be because a battle was averted.
Something possibly like this actually occurred during the reign of David. In 2 Samuel 20:13-22, we’re told that Sheba, who led a rebellion against David, fled to Abel of Beth Maachah, and David’s general Joab besieged the city. A wise woman came forward and worked out with Joab that if the people of Abel gave up Sheba, they would be left in peace. And so they then threw out Sheba’s head, and Joab withdrew. We don’t know that the woman’s name was forgotten at the time, but as it is not given in the account, that could be. The siege of Abel was not the exact occasion described in Ecclesiastes 9:13-16, though it could have provided a model for it.
In any case we see the poor wise man who saved the city in the present story forgotten. Expositor’s comments: “It was all part of the vanity and frustration of a self-centered world. Moreover, it was undoubtedly humiliating for the people to admit that they had been saved by a nobody” (note on verses 13-15). The New American Commentary points out that “wisdom is sought out only in desperate times; otherwise, only those who have wealth or power are in a position to demand public attention” (Garrett, note on verses 13-16).
Expositor’s continues: “What are we to conclude from this illustration? Certainly not that in view of the changes and chances of life we are better off not to use our gifts. It was right for the poor man to come forward and use his wisdom to thwart [or turn away] the king; it would have been right for him to do so even if he had known that his fellow citizens would not ask his advice in the future” (note on verse 16). Kaiser agrees: “Although the poor, wise man failed to profit personally from his labors, his wisdom was not profitless for others or for this world” (Ecclesiastes: Total Life, p. 105). Indeed, his wisdom was of great value.
Solomon says this example shows that “wisdom is better than strength” (verse 16)—a thought, perhaps a proverb, that is paralleled a couple verses later where he says that “wisdom is better than weapons of war” (verse 18). Recall also Solomon earlier presenting wisdom as a defense—and as giving more strength than 10 military leaders in a city (Ecclesiastes 7:12, Ecclesiastes 7:19). This magnifies the directive we’re given in Ecclesiastes 9:10 to do whatever we do with our might. Clearly what we do should also be with wisdom, which is better than might. And we are to share wisdom with others—even if there is no reward or respect to follow, as with the poor man here. Where verse 16 has “nevertheless,” the word could just be “and” (Young’s Literal Translation), while some versions have “though” or “even though” (ESV). Thus the statement would mean that wisdom is better even when it’s despised and not listened to. Ultimately “the citizens were the real losers”—failing to benefit further from the poor man’s wisdom (Expositor’s, note on verses 17-18). Still, we see here another limitation of wisdom despite its value—that it may go unheard or unheeded.
The words of the wise are often given as quiet, thoughtful assessment, but we see them ignored and shouted over in verse 17—even by a ruler, who is thereby obstinate and foolish. The sinner of verse 18 could be such a leader disregarding the wisdom of the wise as beneath him and his courtiers—even squashing it—so that it cannot be wielded as needed for the good it would do. Wisdom offered can deliver a city and continue to give further help, but if ignored or drowned out by foolishness, the result will be ruin.
However, it’s possible that the sinner in verse 18—if going with what follows in the next verse (Ecclesiastes 10:1)—is a reference to a wise man hurting his own credibility by sin, as Solomon himself had done. But, as such was not the example just given, this would if meant seem to constitute a new thought. The connection with what came before would be the superiority of wisdom over physical might yet with wisdom still having weakness—previously that it went unheeded by others and here that it sometimes goes unheeded by even those who give it.
Of course, it is also generally true that one sinner can destroy much good. One of the common tragedies of life is how one evil person can do so much harm, and even more in this modern age when a single terrorist or a few working together can kill and injure many people and wreak terrible destruction. One person in a church can do something so scandalous that it makes the whole church look bad to the public. One bad parent can create a cycle of sin and suffering that affects generations. And one person can bring terrible consequences on others. Recall what happened in the Israelite conquest of the Promised Land: “Did not Achan the son of Zerah commit a trespass in the accursed thing, and wrath fell on all the congregation of Israel? And that man did not perish alone in his iniquity” (Joshua 22:20). Sin is disastrous for the sinner and often for others—sometimes many others.
We should note that there is no narrative break between the end of Ecclesiastes 9 and the beginning of chapter 10. But the apparently proverbial statements at the end of chapter 9, in verses 16-18 beginning with “Then I said…,” are evidently in response to the example of the poor man in the besieged city in verses 13-15, while the proverbs of chapter 10 are being used for more general observations—with Ecclesiastes 10:1 as transitional, as we’ll note more about in a moment. In fact, except for a single personal observation in chapter 10 (verses 5-7), Ecclesiastes 9:16 through to the conclusion of the book starting in Ecclesiastes 12:8 is essentially a series of proverbs and proverbial poems set in order (compare Ecclesiastes 12:9) to outline, in progressive form, how we must proceed through this life.
Moving on to chapter 10, then, Solomon here offers us a number of proverbs and a wise observation—after laying the groundwork for receiving them in what he’s been saying. As Expositor’s notes: “The Teacher has returned to the subject of wisdom being superior to folly, even when it fails to gain the recognition it deserves (Ecclesiastes 9:13-18). So this is an appropriate place for another series of wise sayings (cf. Ecclesiastes 7:1-12) relating to guidance for life” (note on verse 1).
Recall that the first proverb in the earlier series of proverbs in chapter 7 said, “A good name is better than precious ointment . . .” (verse 1). Now we read about a fly in the ointment or, rather, dead flies (plural)—or even “flies of death,” notes commentator John Gill—as causing a bad smell and hurting the person otherwise reputed to have wisdom and honor. Clearly these two proverbs (Ecclesiastes 7:1 and Ecclesiastes 10:1) are related. In the previous case, an established good reputation was as a good smell—so that interacting with others was a positive experience for them. Now the reputation is as perfume tainted by dead flies. It has become disgusting—in appearance and effect. It was highly valued, costly, and now it has become worthless—as refuse. And note that it takes only a little folly to bring this about—just as flies are small but loathsome. In modern parlance, a fly in the ointment, taken from this verse, refers to a small defect or irritant that spoils the value, enjoyment or success of something. In the proverb, it destroys a wise person’s credibility—as the end of the previous verse about a sinner destroying much good (Ecclesiastes 9:18) might also relate to.
Kaiser contends that “Solomon does not refer to that trace of folly in a wise man or the lapses of the otherwise good man; he instead refers to the tendency for folly to predominate over ‘honorable wisdom,’” as was seen in Ecclesiastes 16-17 with wisdom shouted down and ignored (p. 106). That is, he takes this to be an issue of a government’s or ruler’s reputation where foolishness is allowed to regularly prevail over wisdom. Yet the wording of Ecclesiastes 10:1 concerns one known for wisdom allowing foolishness to prevail only a little. That does not seem to fit with the large-scale suppression of wisdom by the “ruler of fools” in Ecclesiastes 9:17—though it could indeed refer to an otherwise wise king or government giving in to folly just enough to make the rule seem abhorrent to people.
In any case, wisdom’s value being diminished through sin in Ecclesiastes 9:18 provides a transition to the consequences of a little folly in Ecclesiastes 10:1. We should note the putrefying effect of the flies here. Not only is it revolting to the senses, but rot and contamination are indeed spread throughout the ointment. We may compare this with the effects of sin—with spiritual rot and corruption being spread throughout whatever is infected. As Paul said in comparing sin to leavening—pointing out why we are to remove leaven from our lives as a symbolic measure during the Feast of Unleavened Bread—“Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Corinthians 5:6). So it is with the sin and foolishness represented by the “flies of death.” Consider that one of the names of Satan is Beelzebub (Matthew 12:24)—meaning lord or master of flies. Indeed, he is the master of sin and foolishness—attracting people to spiritual filth, decay and death and leading them to spread all this on to others.
Allowing foolishness and sin to prevail in any situation will bring spreading corruption and ruined lives and reputations. Rulers must avoid this, as individuals clearly must as well. We must all strive for righteousness and wisdom, giving no place to wickedness and folly. When we fail in this, we must strive to set things right. Sometimes, though, our reputation may be damaged beyond recovery. Still we should work to earn back trust as much as is possible. Yet before even landing in this situation, we must always remember that it’s best to not bring harm to our reputation in the first place. And recognize that we are better able to serve God in being an example of wisdom and righteousness to others if we ourselves remain above reproach.
Again, we see in all this a limitation of wisdom despite its value—it can be negated by a little foolishness or sin. We are thus encouraged to develop and live by wisdom, but with the realization that our efforts in this will take us only so far. Maintaining a right relationship with God is paramount—which is itself the height of wisdom.
We need wisdom to help navigate the problems of this life. Ecclesiastes 10:2 says, “A wise man’s heart is at his right hand, but a fool’s heart is at his left.” Where the heart is refers to what it is concerned with—whether things on the right or the left. Some versions have the heart inclining to either of these sides (NIV, ESV). And of course whichever way our heart leans is the way we will go. What is meant by right and left? Some see here a proclivity of the wise to value and choose right over wrong and the fool to be drawn to wrong over right, as in the God’s Word Translation. However, the contrast between right and left is not necessarily that between good and evil. The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Bible explains: “While there is no doubt that the right side was considered the place of honor and the most protected position, there is no indication that there was something negative or inherently weak or evil connected to the left side, either in the ancient Near East or Israel. It was secondary in honor and an unexpected direction from which to attack. The fool chose the path of vulnerability and lower status” (note on verse 2). Kaiser points out that “the ‘heart’ (i.e., the mind, or inner nature) of a wise man is ever ready to protect him from numerous dangers (Ecclesiastes 10:2)—on his right hand…. As [18th-century commentator] Ginsburg noted, to be on one’s right was to defend or be ready to assist one, as in Psalm 16:8; Psalm 121:5” (p. 106). The Tyndale commentary further explains in its note on Ecclesiastes 10:2: “The right hand was associated with a strength which saves, supports and protects (Ps[alm] 16:8; Is[aiah] 41:13).” In the latter reference here, God holding one’s right hand equates to helping. The right hand was the place of blessing and honor (compare the blessing on Ephraim in Genesis 48:13-20) and of authority (as with Jesus beside the Father in Colossians 3:1). The left denoted what was less favored—and sometimes even disfavored (compare the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:33,Matthew 25:41). What this all shows is that the heart of the wise is focused on and leans toward what is more important and better, while the foolish person’s heart is set on that which is less worthwhile.
In the first part of Ecclesiastes 10:3, a fool lacking wisdom as he “walks along the way” is usually taken to mean as he walks down the street—possibly meaning that the fool is foolish even when doing the simplest of things (see the later discussion of verse 15). But walking is also a common metaphor for how one lives—one’s way of life—and “way” can refer to the course of one’s life or what he experiences. In the latter part of the verse the fool, by a literal reading, says to everyone that he is a fool, which could mean that the fool tells everyone else that they are fools. But it probably means that he communicates to or shows everyone (as in the NKJV) that he himself is a fool. Compare this with the latter part of Proverbs 13:16, where a fool lays open or flaunts or exposes his folly (see NKJV, ESV, NIV). Or Proverbs 12:23: “…The heart of fools proclaims foolishness.” The Contemporary English Version paraphrases Ecclesiastes 10:3 this way: “Fools show their stupidity by the way they live; it’s easy to see they have no sense.” Stupidity is used here to denote not lack of intelligence, but lack of wisdom in evaluating matters and then making poor life choices. So again we see that wisdom will help us to better navigate this life despite its inability to deal with all of this life’s problems.