It is Better to Be Wise After All (Ecclesiastes 9:11-18)

Since we are not eternal and omniscient like God, we don’t know what will happen next.  It could be good or bad, we just don’t know.

That fills some people with all kinds of anxiety.  Into this vacuum called “the unknown” rush all kinds of insecurities and fears.

Consider the curious case of Molière, the French actor and playwright.  While performing the title role in the final scene of his own drama The Hypochondriac, or The Imaginary Invalid, Molière was seized by a violent coughing fit.  As it turned out, his malady was not playacting. Molière died just a few hours later (“Molière, The Imaginary Invalid,” in the Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database of New York University).

Or consider Bob Cartwright.  Bob Cartwright was disappointed when he was unable to accept an invitation to fly to New York with his friend Tyler Stanger and the professional baseball player Cory Lidle for a playoff game between the Yankees and the Tigers.  He felt differently when he saw the news that Stanger and Lidle had crashed into an apartment building and perished. “I was supposed to be on that plane,” Cartwright said.  Yet just one month later Cartwright died in another plane crash, near his mountain home in California (See

Then there is Donald Peters, who bought two Connecticut lottery tickets on November 1, 2008 — just as he had for the previous twenty years.  As it turned out, one of his tickets was worth $10 million.  But Peters was not as lucky as one might think, because he died of a heart attack later on the very day that he bought the winning ticket (As reported in China Daily (January 5, 2009), p. 6).

None of these unfortunate, unexpected events would have surprised the Preacher who wrote Ecclesiastes. “Time and chance happen to them all,” he would have said. “Man knows not his time.”

Listen to the Preacher’s words in Ecclesiastes 9, starting in verse 11.

11 Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. 12 For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them. 13 I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. 14 There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. 15 But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. 16 But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are not heard. 17 The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools. 18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.

Solomon’s emphasis in 9:2-10 was on the fact that a righteous person could not be more certain of his or her earthly future than the wicked.  In 9:11—10:11, his point was that the wise cannot be more sure of his or her earthly future than the fool.

Earlier we learned (9:2) that good things don’t always happen to good people.  Here we find that no matter how talented or gifted we are, we cannot be sure that we will be rewarded.

Here, the Preacher seems to struggle against a sense of fatalism—that it doesn’t matter what we do, we cannot guarantee our outcome.  In other words, we really have no control over our future.

Time and chance are paired, no doubt because they both have a way of taking matters suddenly out of our hands” (Derek Kidner).

He had earlier expressed the idea that our times are in God’s hands (Eccl. 9:1), but wondered whether that was a good or bad thing.  If God’s heart is not for us, then being in his hands can be a bad thing! (Heb. 10:31)

Fortunately, on this side of the cross, we can know that we know that we know that God is for us, because He already did the most difficult thing—giving his one and only Son to be the satisfaction for our sins (Romans 8:31-32).

But Solomon didn’t know that, or wasn’t focusing on that.

Again, Solomon is bemoaning this reality from an “under the sun” perspective.  From a purely physical viewpoint, life is unpredictable.  It would make sense that the swift would win the race.  Most of the time they do, but sometimes misfortune takes place—an injury, a baton drop, a lane violation.  Which is why Paul reminds us that “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Timothy 2:5) and therefore they must remain disciplined in order to win the prize (1 Cor. 9:24-27).

Think of the tortoise and the hare.  Rabbits should always win, but not if they lollygag along.

Yes, the battle usually goes to the strong, but some unforeseen event can turn the tide in battle.  How many times throughout history has a smaller force beaten a larger force?  Think of Abraham’s 318 men against the five kings of the East (Gen. 14:14).  Think of Gideon’s 300 men (originally 32,000) against the 120,000 Midianites (Judges 7).  Or think of David vs. Goliath.  In many cases this happened so that God would get the glory and that man would learn to trust in God alone.  God didn’t want Israel to trust in horses and chariots.  In Psalm 33:17 they were encouraged, “The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue.”

The Olympic slogan says citius, altius, fortius — swifter, higher, stronger!  But the race is not always won by the swift, nor the battle always by the strong.

In the early 1900s Jim Thorpe won two gold medals at the Olympic Games.  He stood before the king of Sweden and was publicly acknowledged as the greatest athlete of his time.  Yet those medals and honors had to be given back when it was learned that years earlier he had played professional baseball for five dollars a season, which rendered him no longer an amateur.  Only recently were his medals restored, posthumously.

Bo Jackson was one of the greatest athletes of our generation.  An All-Pro NFL football player and a Major League All-Star baseball player.  Bo Jackson was a marvel to watch.  In 1991, he was at the height of his career and the prime of his powers.  He was disciplined, determined and focused.

Despite his natural gifts and hard work, on January 13, 1991, he was tackled from the side while running down the sidelines for the Oakland Raiders.  Bo injured his hip and had to be helped from the field.  Within a year he was forced to undergo hip replacement surgery, and though he returned briefly to baseball, his career was essentially over.  Time and chance overtake them all.

Then the Preacher augments his list of physical attributes by mentioning several intellectual abilities.  Ordinarily we would expect someone with a superior mind to be worth a fortune, or at least to make a good living.  But when the markets crash, even the sharpest financial adviser suddenly realizes that he is not as smart as he thought he was.   Wisdom does not guarantee a good job or a prosperous future.

What the Preacher says is true: the wise do not always have bread, intelligence does not guarantee a good income, and having a lot of knowledge will not necessarily do us any favors.

In short, human ability is no guarantee of success in life.  Disaster can overtake any one of us.

As the Preacher says, “time and chance” happen to us all.  This phrase doesn’t deny the sovereignty of God.  We know that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).  Everything is under his wise providence and sovereign control.  What happens in life is not actually arbitrary, therefore, but is subject to God’s authority and plan.

However, we don’t know what God is up to.  And we cannot control the outcomes.  We can do our best and sometimes still come out receiving the short end of the stick.  We often hear, “You have to be the right person, in the right place, at the right time.”  But the Preacher is saying that life is really not under our control.

As Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans, but the LORD establishes his steps” and Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.”  These Proverbs are not arguing against planning; they just mean that we have to hold our plans loosely.  We have to trust God with the outcome AND with the journey.

It reminds me of a story.

There was once a farmer who owned a horse and had a son.

One day, his horse ran away.  The neighbors came to express their concern: “Oh, that’s too bad.  How are you going to work the fields now?”  The farmer replied: “Good thing, Bad thing, Who knows?”

In a few days, his horse came back and brought another horse with her.  Now, the neighbors were glad: “Oh, how lucky!  Now you can do twice as much work as before!”  The farmer replied: “Good thing, Bad thing, Who knows?”

The next day, the farmer’s son fell off the new horse and broke his leg.  The neighbors were concerned again: “Now that he is incapacitated, he can’t help you around, that’s too bad.”  The farmer replied: “Good thing, Bad thing, Who knows?”

Soon, the news came that a war broke out, and all the young men were required to join the army.  The villagers were sad because they knew that many of the young men will not come back.  The farmer’s son could not be drafted because of his broken leg.  His neighbors were envious: “How lucky!  You get to keep your only son.”  The farmer replied: “Good thing, Bad thing, Who knows”.

We don’t know.  If don’t know if some success will be disastrous or if some misfortune is the key to victory.  We just don’t know.

That is why we have to trust God with the outcome and with the journey.  If we trust God, we can have an “above the sun” mentality.

There is a time for everything (Eccl. 3:1-8), we just don’t know when that time will be.  If we trust God and give Him thanks we can be content, whether it is a “good thing” or a “bad thing.”

Solomon says, “Man does not know his time” (Eccl. 9:12).  Then he illustrates this truth with a pair of images, drawn from nature.  “Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them” (9:12b)

The fish and the birds get caught before they know it.  If they had realized they were swimming into a net or flying into a snare, they would have gone the opposite direction.  But by the time they were trapped, it was too late to escape.  Things can be going along great, and then all of a sudden, disaster.

Solomon had used this image earlier when he was encouraging his son to do all he could to escape the tempting snare of the adulterer: “as a bird rushes into a snare; he does not know that it will cost him his life” (Prov. 7:23).  This is why Solomon recommended prudence, an ability to strip through the camouflage of the world’s deceptions and perceive the consequences of an action.  In Proverbs 14:15 the prudent “gives thought to his steps.”  In Proverbs 22:3 Solomon says, “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.”

The same thing happens to us human beings.  “Time” and “chance” overtake us.  Suddenly life is out of our hands.  God may “rudely” interrupt your life at very inconvenient times.  How many plans have been interrupted over the last two years over things outside of our control?

The word “time” may refer to the seasons of life or possibly to a time of judgment.  Either way, in this context is represents something bad.  As Philip Ryken says, “Before we know it, we will get trapped in a bad situation at work, or afflicted with a fatal disease, or caught in a financial tsunami. At the very end, of course, the time will come for us to die and go to judgment—a time that God knows, but we do not” (Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, p. 223).

In this context, “chance” refers to “bad luck.”  From the rest of verse 12, which talks about “an evil net” and “an evil time,” it is clear that when the Preacher talks about “chance,” he is not talking about something good that happens but something bad. In a fallen world, many unhappy things happen every day, from natural disasters and environmental catastrophes to military conflicts and economic downturns (Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, p. 223).

Derek Kidner comments: “All this counterbalances the impression we may get from maxims about hard work, that success is ours to command.  In the sea of life we are more truly the fish…taken in an evil net, or else unaccountably spared, than the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 84).

“Try as he might, he will not be able to finesse the circumstances to effect a positive result.  The way things are is the way things are” (James Bollhagen, Ecclesiastes, p. 340).

So Solomon is saying that life is unpredictable.  In His mercy God is telling us to expect the unexpected.  Like Peter tells us, when hardship comes, we shouldn’t be surprised.  We need reminders that we are not in control.  But God is and we can trust Him.

So, what are we to do?  Just throw up our hands and give up and sit on the couch and flip through channels trying to find something that will take our minds off of life?  If the race doesn’t go to the swift, then why run, we might conclude.  If the battle is not won by the strong, then why get ready for battle?  If an education doesn’t guarantee a good salary, then why bother?

But Solomon does not give in to fatalism.  He commends the relative value of wisdom, telling us that it does matter if we live wisely.

And above all, we need to leave our lives in God’s hands—trusting him and being content with everything that comes into our lives.  This is what James, the wisdom book of the New Testament, tells us…

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”– 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 

Yes, wisdom is good; but no, it doesn’t keep us from having to trust God with the outcome.

The Preacher does this first by giving us the example of someone wise (Ecclesiastes 9:13–15) and then by comparing wisdom to several (less advantageous) alternatives (Ecclesiastes 9:16–18).

Here is the Preacher’s example: “I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me.  There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it.  But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city.  Yet no one remembered that poor wise man” (Ecclesiastes 9:13–15).

Okay, so everything’s positive about wisdom right up until that last sentence.  Wisdom can deliver a city, but the wise person will eventually—maybe sooner than later—be forgotten.  It kind of reminds me of coaching in the SEC.  If you’re not winning for me today, it doesn’t matter if you were national champions two years ago.  Scram!

Although some commentators perceive this story as a parable, many regard it as a true account of an historical event.  It was something the preacher had seen or heard of himself, not something he invented for the sake of making a point.

A poor man was wise enough to save his city from a “great king.”

According to Philip Ryken, “Some scholars have even tried to determine the precise historical context. Certainly we know similar stories from the Bible.  In 2 Samuel we read about a wise woman who saved the city of Abel by sacrificing the life of one evil man (20:14–22).  Wise King Hezekiah saved Jerusalem a different way — by praying to God for deliverance (2 Kings 19).  There are examples from ancient history as well, like Archimedes who reportedly saved Syracuse from the Romans by sinking their ships”

Despite the fact that this man was forgotten, his wisdom did save the city.  And that was significant.  This city had almost no chance of surviving.  It was totally outnumbered by a great king who had the latest military technology.

But this battle didn’t go to the strong.  Praise God!  In this case, one man knew exactly what to do.  And that is what wisdom is—the ability to live successfully—whether in one’s relationships, one’s responsibilities, one’s finances, or one’s problems.  For Qoheleth, this was an example of what wisdom can do.

Wisdom imparts saving faith (2 Tim. 3:15) the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  On the one hand, this wisdom can definitely give a person an edge over his foolish neighbors in dealing with life.  Wisdom compares to folly like light to darkness (2:13).  A wise child is better than a foolish king (4:13).  Wisdom gives an advantage, provides protection, and prolongs one’s life—forever (7:11-12).  Wisdom brings understanding and make one’s countenance shine (8:1).

On the other hand, however, even wisdom cannot protect us from everything.  It cannot solve every problem, nor prevent every suffering.  We won’t be able to predict the future.  But we can trust God with it.

Happy is the city that has even one person who is wise enough to rescue its citizens.

Clearly, in this situation, wisdom is better than strength, but even so it does not guarantee a reward (cf. Judg. 9:53; 2 Sam. 20).  People generally do not value wisdom as highly as wealth, even though wisdom is really worth more.

Kidner reminds us that the point of this story is that we are to identify with this wise man, not because we are successful consultants, but simply that “sadly enough, we should learn not to count on anything as fleeting as public gratitude.”

We live in the world of “what have you done for me lately” and our good deeds are quickly forgotten.

Under the premise that death ends existence and consciousness for all, Solomon protested that the only lasting meaning this man might have – to be remembered – was taken away.  The almost unbelievable fleetingness of fame added to the sense of meaninglessness of life.

16 But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are not heard. 

Even though unappreciated, it is better to be wise.

17 The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools. 18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.

“In the pattern of this chapter this is one more example of what is unpredictable and cruel in life, to sap our confidence in what we can make of it on our own.  The last two verses (17-18) give an extra thrust to the parable by showing first how valuable and then how vulnerable is wisdom.  We are left with more than a suspicion that in human politics the last word will regularly go to the loud voice of verse 17 or the cold steel of verse 18.  Seldom to truth, seldom to merit” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 85).

And don’t we see that so often today?  It is not the reasonable preacher of truth that gets heard, but the voice that shouts the loudest and heaps public shame upon others.

The practical upshot for the wise person might simply be this: sometimes people will listen to you, sometimes they won’t, and you cannot anticipate which reaction will prevail.  Regardless of what response is expected, a wise person will always speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).

Two things we might learn from verse 17.  One, the truth of a person’s statement cannot be assessed by the volume with which he says it.  Loudness, in fact, is often used to overcome a poor argument or reason.

Second, note the mass hysteria, “among fools.”  Groupthink can be a real problem today.  When “everybody” believes or says something, then we have a hard time bucking the trend.  It takes courage to stand alone and be the quiet voice of wisdom.

The Preacher continues to emphasize how often and how easily wisdom can be neglected.  The shouts of the powerful among fools or just one person can derail the good effects of wisdom.  Just as one wise man can save a city, one sinner can destroy it.

Solomon sensed that it was much easier to destroy than to build.  Establishing things by wisdom is much more difficult than destroying them by the work of even one sinner.

Deane reminds us:

“Adam’s sin infected the whole race of man; Achan’s transgression caused Israel’s defeat (Joshua 7:1112); Rehoboam’s folly occasioned the great schism (1 Kings 12:16).”

Solomon also may mean that even a wise man may give some foolish advice at times.  It just reminds us how credibility may take years to build and can be destroyed in a moment of weakness or foolishness.

Or, like J. Vernon McGee used to say: “A mother spends twenty-one years teaching a son to be wise, and some girl will come along and make a fool out of him in five minutes.”

Warren Wiersbe has a different perspective.  He thinks the wise man could have saved the city, but louder voices prevailed and nobody paid attention to him.  Verse 17 suggests that a ruler with a loud mouth got all the attention and led the people into defeat.  The wise man spoke too quietly and was ignored.  He had the opportunity for greatness but was frustrated by one loud, ignorant man.

The reminder of this painful fact of life is not intended to discourage the wise person from trying to work the good, but to help him keep his eyes wide open (2:14) and to present him from becoming disillusioned when his well-intended efforts meet with failure.

Yes, misfortune can happen even to the wise.

By the end of chapter 9, Solomon has made his case against all our self-sufficiency.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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