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Solomon has been talking about (among other things) suffering and prosperity and whether it is good or bad. In chapter 6:12 he makes the statement “For who knows what is good for a man in life . . .” and in the following chapters, gives scenarios of what is good and bad, such as a good name, the day of death, and several other issues of life. In his evaluations of these issues, he concludes that when we suffer or face adversity, it is not necessarily a sign of God’s disfavor and that prosperity is not necessarily a sign of God’s favor.
Chapter nine tells us that the ways and mysteries of God are just that: ways and mysteries. Our lives are to be lived under the Divine Providence of God and under His inscrutable wisdom. And what He decides that our lives are to embrace, we must, as Habakkuk 2:4 tells us, “live by faith.” All things being equal—our relationship with God being righteous, and our labor for His kingdom being constant and our motives pure, we need not worry that God is somehow punishing us.
Chapter 9 admittedly has some difficulties in understanding what Solomon is trying to say. Verse 1b states: “but no man knows whether love or hate awaits him.” We do not have a problem understanding the love of God, but it is not a guarantee that just because God loves us that life will always be “a bed of roses”. There is an old song that starts “God has not promised skies always blue . . . but he has promised strength for the day . . . light on the way” etc. We read about the apostle Paul’s thorn in the flesh but he was told that “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2Cor 12:7) The cause, according to Paul, was due to a “messenger of Satan to torment him” to keep him from becoming “conceited” about great revelations he had received.
As to the word “hate”, it is used many times in Scripture as a hostile mind or malice. Here, according to Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies (page 209); “it is not always to be understood in the strongest sense, but must sometimes mean only a less degree of love and regard; to be cold and indifferent to, to show less favor to.” I believe that is what is meant in this passage and in the total context of the book.
Does God truly hate the unbeliever? Certainly not according to John 3:16 where John tells us that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” This is the verse that many use to warn and convince the sinner that there is a better future and eternity awaiting the repentant person.
Verse 2 reflects that when Solomon says: “All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not,” he seems to be talking about a general population which includes both believers and unbelievers, not the extreme sinners such as murderers. However, in any general population, there would be a mix of various kinds of sinners but without an excessive number of extreme felons.
We are all in the care of God and at His disposal, or under His supervision. He is the potter, we are the clay [see 2 Corinthians 4:7], and how He fashions us is in His sovereign grace is His prerogative. The unbeliever’s life is also under what the earlier scholars called “common grace”. The rain falls on the just and the unjust (Mt 5:45) and we are all recipients of the “good” and the “bad”. Righteousness and wisdom have no inherent guarantees from adversity. Neither do the unrighteous and foolish. Job is a constant example of the righteous man who suffered mightily and undeservedly. His friends wrongly concluded that he must have sinned severely.
The conclusion in verse 2b is that what happens “with the good man also happens with the sinner; and with those who take oaths (the good man), so it is with those who are afraid to take them”, (the sinner). The playing field appears to be level for both the righteous and the unrighteous. The advantage, however, is to the righteous due to the inherent wisdom and discernment that comes with true righteousness. It would be cruel to suggest, as did Job’s friends, that those who suffer are somehow objects of God’s wrath and that all suffering is a result of personal sin. Babies and little children often suffer illnesses and pains and to attribute it to their sins would be to add unjustly to their oppression. [Web Site Host:We might keep in mind the Bible history of Achan and Ai, the rebellion in the Wilderness; and the loss of God’s support to Israel and Judah when they went into battle without consulting HIM].
Suffering has many purposes and causes, but Solomon is not trying to determine the causes. He is simply noting that in the economy of God, it does happen, and it happens to everybody. What Solomon is concerned with next is a subject that he approaches several times in his journal of life. It is the problem of death, which, he observes, will happen to everybody. The statistics are one-in-one. He approaches it as an event that happens to all “under the sun”.
Derek Kidner notes that “no-one has faced this more resolutely than Qoheleth (Solomon). It was this that gave him second thoughts over his praise of wisdom, “seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten” (2:13-17). After this reflection, whatever subject he touches has to face this test and be found wanting. Whatever may be the successes of a man’s best years, the entirety of his career has to be mapped as a journey from a naked beginning to a naked end (5:15) (Page 99 of An Introduction to Wisdom Literature).
Verse 3:“This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun. The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead.” This is quite an indictment. We are all aware of the evil in our own hearts but to accelerate to ‘madness’ is beyond the sophistication of the ‘average’ law-abiding citizen. It “implies so great a departure from wisdom that the mind, without any control, rushes on with a blind fury”. (Wilson’s OT Word Studies page 262) It is folly at its worst. Wisdom has been excommunicated from the thought life of the hell-bound.
However, there is hope even for the worst of sinners. There are many examples in history of those who were evil in life but found Christ and His salvation, such as Paul the apostle, John Newton (Amazing Grace author), Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, Martin Luther, and many more.
Verse 4 mitigates the grave for the converted. But for the unconverted, there is still hope. “Even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!” In the ancient world, the dog was a despised scavenger, not like the sophisticated lap dogs that are so prized by society today. The point here is that until death, one is able to repent of the “evil and madness” so that death will have no sting, but will be “swallowed up in victory” (2 Cor. 15:54).
Recall the statement in chapter 7:2 that said “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting”. The next few verses in chapter 9 are further warning that all chances in life and all obligations to the Creator are to be taken care of while one is among the living. Many times in the next few chapters, the uncertainty of life is examined and the consequences of wrong choices are discussed. Chapter 12 is the final warning with reference to salvation, death and judgment. Death is final for all.
Verses 7 to 10 enjoin the reader, once again, to “Go, eat your food with gladness and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do.” The word “favor” simply means that God is kind and tenderly affected toward us and sincerely desires our happiness, even in the midst of the degradation of this world. Our faith is to be remedial; our consciences need to be taught the truth of the Word as it has been given to us. Solomon had the Pentateuch, which should have been enough to provide the wisdom that he was apparently seeking. His estrangement from the Law, however, and his experiments of life (chapter 2) alienated him from the tender affections of God and hindered his quest for truth, wisdom and happiness even though in 2:9 he states: “In all this my wisdom stayed with me”.
In spite of all his experiences, he concluded that he could still enjoy and recommend true enjoyment of the benefits of faith. His prior advice seems to have become an urgent call to righteous living. With death staring him in the face at every turn, and time being short, his best course was to become serious about life. So, the suggestions (or commands?) of verses 9 and 10 come after the call to be “clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil,” a symbol of joy and gladness. (Verse 8)
From verse 7, it appears that Solomon did, indeed, attain a change in his life. The New King James renders it: “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart; For God has already accepted your works.” That reflects a teaching I heard years ago from a faithful friend who counseled people: “You have to want to first!” Without a fitting and pure motive, there will not be much improvement. Someone pointed out also that the center of ‘obedience’ is “I die”. The apostle Paul argues in the book of Romans that the struggle for holiness is a daily and constant fight against the old sin nature (Rom. 7:14-8:17). Men who are righteous, will not have to worry whether God may forsake them because their hearts and motives are acceptable to Him—but it is not easy.
Verses 9 and 10 are further encouragement to the upright. Intimate relationships will be enhanced and the ‘meaningless’ toil and endless planning will not have the effect that being “under the sun” would ordinarily produce. This is part of the “grace of life” that Peter refers to in I Peter 3:7. This enjoyment of life however, is not the final answer to the question of the purpose of life, nor the ultimate solution to wisdom and knowledge. These answers do not seem to have a final resolution in the book. The author continues to come back to the fact of death and how we are to live in the light of our final day. The enjoyment of life is secondary to satisfying our Creator in the meantime. The opportunity to do what pleases us and what pleases God you will end. The verses of 7:1 and 8:1 still haunt Solomon.
The injunction to work hard continues in verse 11. He looks around and notes several things that are an enigma to him: “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; BUT time and chance happen to them all.” This echoes verse 1 which says: “BUT no man knows whether love or hate awaits him.” The same mystery appears again with no explanation that satisfies his inquiry.
The passage comes between an encouragement to piety and enjoyment resulting in true delights of life and a brief discussion of some hazards of life and wisdom and folly. Life can be frustrating and must not be forgotten. Vanity can take many and different forms. He mentions five of them and not one is able to guarantee fortune or well-being.
Remember the high school annuals that usually contained the names of the ‘best looking’, the ‘best athletes’, the ‘smartest couple’, etc. Here, Solomon is talking about the ‘most likely to succeed’ but the ultimate outcomes of the five examples are more negative than positive. The five are the ‘swift’, the ‘strong’, the ‘wise’, the ‘discerning’ (understanding) and the ‘learned’ (skilled).
He starts out with “The race is not to the swift.” For all of the contenders, ‘time’ is a limited, as we are all in the hand of God and well aware of how brief life can be. The second limitation is ‘chance’, or, better, ‘occurrence’, the unexpected event or circumstance that may throw even the most accomplished person off course. In the divine scheme of events, winning a race goes to the one who runs in the strength of the Lord and goes where he sends. In this context, the ‘time’ should be construed as a negative, unless, of course, the event is ordered by the Lord as noted.
Time, for the swift, will run out and after that, the judgment. Events may overwhelm the participant in the race only to end in failure. The swift one appears to rely on his own strength and ability rather than divine assistance. The same would be true of all of the other contenders. There are biblical examples of all the participants: Asahel was a swift runner but was speared; Samson was strong, but lost; Solomon was extremely wise but became very foolish; Ahithophel had exceptional discernment but was outwitted by Hushai; Moses was learned but committed murder and spent the next forty years as a fugitive.
So, in life, “love and hate” await us, and we do not know which it will be (9:1). The next challenge is in verse 11c: “BUT time and chance happen to them all.” It is not that we may be in the right place at the right time, or the wrong place at the wrong time, but that we acknowledge that the God of all grace is sovereign and is “pulling the strings”. The word “chance” is better rendered “events”. Solomon seems to be an evangelist in warning his readers that what happens in life is ordered by God—we are not the “captain of our souls.” The events of life are uncertain and every night on the news is an account of an unexpected death or some other event. These events are usually “evil” in nature.
William Ernest Henley wrote the poem “Invictus” in which he challenges authority of God when he writes:
“Out of the night that covers me, black as the Pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be for my unconquerable soul. In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeoning of chance my head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears looms but the Horror of the shade, and yet the menace of the years finds, and shall find, me unafraid. It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
In this poem, Henley is defying the authority of God to write the script (scroll) of his life. We only have this life to prepare to meet a Sovereign, gracious, and merciful God. Verse 12 puts a capstone on what Solomon has been saying when he remarks: “Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come:”
He finishes the verse with: “As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.” The vanity that Solomon has been talking about throughout the book is for one to be trusting in human wisdom, abilities, and believing that they will never fail. Proverbs 21:30 tells us that “there is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the Lord.” We do not relish the idea that we are not in control, but ultimately, and in the final analysis, we do not have dominion over the events of today nor are we guaranteed a tomorrow.
Along with these thoughts, a pastor friend of mine speaks of the Divine-human cooperative. There are a great number of examples in the Bible in which men have ‘cooperated’ with God in different endeavors. In these cases, men must, in the final analysis, depend upon God to provide the wisdom and power to accomplish His will. In I Samuel 17:47 when David confronted Goliath at Sucoh in Judah, he said “All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.” An amazing story to illustrate what Solomon is saying in these verses.
There are many such examples in the Scriptures where men or women and God cooperate to show His power, majesty, dominion and authority to an enemy or a congregation. This does not mean that man does not have a “free will”. However, I do neither have the ability nor the wisdom to discuss the problem at this time or in this context. Life is a Divine-human cooperative. We are not free radicals to do much of anything without the strength of the Lord. Men must acknowledge that time is both a friend and an enemy and we can easily become “trapped” in a snare unexpectedly; after that, the judgment.
Verses 13-18. With the words “I also saw”, Solomon indicates a new section but he is still concerned with wisdom and folly. The details of the siege are not given except that there was a great king, a large army, a small city, huge siege works (snares), a few people in the city and one wise man. Solomon was impressed with the whole story. Some think that he is referring to the story of the wise woman in the little town of Abel. That story is in 2 Samuel 20:14-22. The circumstances, however, are not the same.
How the city was delivered, we are not told. This is a case of ‘evil’ suddenly coming upon a city. The first part is the story and the second part is Solomon’s commentary on it. The thought of the paragraph seems to hark back to verse 10 where he says: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge or wisdom.” Death eliminates all of our options.
The apparent point that Solomon is making is in verse 16: “So I said, ‘Wisdom is better than strength.’ But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded.” There is one positive side to the story—the “better” of wisdom. However, there are two negative and unfortunate notes that he records: The poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are no longer heeded. His standing in the community was nil.
It takes a certain spiritual dimension to be despised and rejected and continue on in life. Godly wisdom is a rare but precious commodity in the life of the believer and will be recognized and rewarded by a God who understands and directs one’s life. If you ever encounter a wise man, be sure to listen and take advantage of it.
The last couple of lines give excellent advice: (v17) “The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools. (18) Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.” It seems that we have a maximum number of fools that are constantly calling for our attention and when there is a large collection of them, much destruction and harm happens. Wisdom, here, is a priority, but human wisdom must be learned from the storehouse of the Word of God. Biblical wisdom is the application of the Word of God to experience. Experience must be under the Sovereignty of God so that we can say, whether “love or hate” awaits us, we are in the hands of an all knowing and all loving God.