A prevalent criticism among those who challenge Christianity is that it represents a belief that tends to de-emphasize the pursuit of knowledge, scientific advancement, and critical thinking. However, the reality is that the opposite is actually more likely to be true. You see, a Christian must often become more of a thinking person in order to engage with those who challenge that belief.
For instance, the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes represents something of a dilemma for the person who considers the Scriptures to be nothing more than a collection of fantasies, myths, and legends. As a former judicial professional, political leader, business executive, and artist, the author of Ecclesiastes presents some impressive credentials- and he employed those unique qualifications to undertake a rigorous and exhaustive examination of the political, social, and economic realities of the world as we know it. In the end, the results of this examination were undeniable: “…as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless—like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere” (Ecclesiastes 2:11).
The issue is that the religious and non-religious both face a similar problem: each must attempt to offer the best explanation for the realities of life and the seemingly unexplainable variables of our daily existence. In chapter nine, our author will return to his examination of the human condition of life under the sun in an attempt to provide that answer. He will offer a consideration for all who face the inescapable reality of death and he will invite his readers to consider the limitations of our ability explain the events of life…
“This, too, I carefully explored: Even though the actions of godly and wise people are in God’s hands, no one knows whether God will show them favor. The same destiny ultimately awaits everyone, whether righteous or wicked, good or bad, ceremonially clean or unclean, religious or irreligious. Good people receive the same treatment as sinners, and people who make promises to God are treated like people who don’t” (Ecclesiastes 9:1-2).
The fact that a person finds prosperity in life doesn’t automatically imply that he or she is virtuous, ethical, or above reproach. Of course, the opposite is also true as well, for adversity doesn’t only affect the dishonest, immoral, or unprincipled. Although it’s generally true that someone will eventually reap the consequences of his or her conduct (for good or bad), that does not always seem to be the case, at least as far as we can tell. The Teacher ascribes this situation to God with the implication that He sometimes chooses to act in a capricious manner. We’ll examine that statement more closely next.
“This, too, I carefully explored: Even though the actions of godly and wise people are in God’s hands, no one knows whether God will show them favor… Good people receive the same treatment as sinners, and people who make promises to God are treated like people who don’t” (Ecclesiastes 9:1-2b).
A casual reading of this passage would seem to indicate that God moves capriciously, or in a manner that appears to be impulsive, fickle, or unreliable. But just because it may appear as if God is moving without a plan doesn’t necessarily mean that He doesn’t have one.
The Scriptures tell us that God has an agenda that He is working out on both a large scale (Psalm 33:11) and smaller scale within our individual lives (Jeremiah 29:11). Of course, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes is speaking strictly from an earth-bound, “under the sun” point of view but Jesus provided us with a parable that illustrates a very different perspective on this passage…
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-29 NIV).
Although the homes in Jesus’ parable may have appeared similar, they were not identical. While the same storm came against both homes, the difference was in the foundation that each was built upon. This tells us that a life that’s built upon the solid foundation of Jesus’ teachings doesn’t necessarily receive an automatic immunity from the common storms of everyday life or the unpredictable variables of daily existence. For example, if a Christian never had a financial issue, physical ailment, employment problem, or never wrecked a car, failed at school, or lost a loved one, then Christianity would probably be a lot more appealing- not necessarily because of anything related to Jesus but simply as a vehicle to obtain a more favorable life.
The key element missing from the Teacher’s “under the sun analysis” analysis was faith- and without faith, it is impossible to please God (see Hebrews 11:6). Those who claim to trust and believe in God shouldn’t be surprised if God provides an opportunity to demonstrate that commitment through the storms of life.
“But exactly the same thing will finally happen to all of us, whether we live right and respect God or sin and don’t respect God. Yes, the same thing will happen if we offer sacrifices to God or if we don’t, if we keep our promises or break them” (Ecclesiastes 9:2 CEV).
No matter who you are, where you live, or what period of human history you inhabit, everyone shares something in common with every other human being who has ever lived: one day our lives on earth will end. The Teacher has painstakingly illustrated this difficult truth in the passage quoted above by contrasting the different attitudes of those who honor God and those who have no use for Him, those who follow religious observances and those who don’t, and those who make solemn promises to the Almighty and those who refuse to do so.
While each of these attitudes may differ from one another, none can escape this common finality. With this in mind, we might ask,“Why bother to live a lifestyle that benefits anyone other than myself?” If there’s nothing we can do to alter the reality of death, then what’s the point of living anything other than an entirely self-serving life? While this may represent the Teacher’s “under the sun” perspective, it misses an important point- we all share a common mortality but we may not share a common destiny.
For instance, the person who believes in Jesus is someone who lives with an eternal perspective. For that person, the decisions of daily life are (or should be) guided by a set of core beliefs that find their origin within the pages of the Scriptures. One important principle from the Scriptures tells us that physical death doesn’t represent a cessation of existence but a transitional state; a move from this temporary life under the sun to an eternal life with God (see 2 Corinthians 5:6-8).
A person with this Biblical mindset also understands the implications of Jesus’ teaching from the Gospel of Matthew when He says, “…your Father in heaven… makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45 NKJV). Therefore, when a “bad” person receives something good, a person with this Biblical perspective doesn’t automatically equate that good thing with something unfair. Instead, he or she may view it as an example of God’s grace towards those who have done nothing to deserve it (also see Romans 5:8).
Unfortunately, not everyone shares this viewpoint and that will lead the Teacher to some very different conclusions next.
“It seems so tragic that everyone under the sun suffers the same fate. That is why people are not more careful to be good. Instead, they choose their own mad course, for they have no hope. There is nothing ahead but death anyway. There is hope only for the living. As they say, ‘It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion!'” (Ecclesiastes 9:3-4).
In physics, the term “escape velocity” identifies the minimum speed necessary to break free from a gravitational field. Unfortunately for the author of Ecclesiastes (and those who share his perspective), his earth-centric, “under the sun” philosophy never permitted him to achieve the “escape velocity” necessary to exceed the limitation of his intellect or personal experience.
Like the astronomer who is far removed from the objects he studies in the heavens, Solomon had an obscure understanding regarding a Creator who influenced the events that we experience on earth. The only thing he could identify with any certainty was one observable conclusion: “This is something wrong that happens here on earth: What happens to one happens to all. So people’s minds are full of evil and foolish thoughts while they live. After that, they join the dead” (NCV).
The “something wrong” or “same fate” spoken of in these passages is death. While everyone is familiar with the concept of death, it may also represent something that is not so easy to define. For example, does death represent the cessation of existence? Does it represent a departure into a mindless, formless oblivion? Well as mentioned earlier, those answers would not represent a Biblical perspective on the concept of death. Instead, the Scriptures link the idea of death with the concept of separation.
For instance, physical death is the separation of the spirit (or the eternal “you”) and your physical body. The New Testament book of James verifies this definition when it tells us, “…the body without the spirit is dead…” (James 2:26). Another type of death occurs when people are spiritually separated from the God who created them. We can see an example of this type of death in the Scriptures by looking at Genesis chapter three. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s commandment, the result was death- not an immediate, physical death (although that did come later) but spiritual death or separation from God.
1 Corinthians 15:26 identifies death as the last enemy to be defeated- but for Solomon and those who shared his “under the sun” philosophy, death was not just an enemy; it was an unvanquished victor.
The word “hope” is a word that implies things like optimism, anticipation, or expectancy. For instance, there’s always the possibility that something good may happen for anyone who gets up to face the challenge of a new day. But for those who have been laid to rest with no assurance of a future life beyond this planet, there is no hope for anything better ahead nor is there a possibility of changing anything that transpired in the past behind.
Solomon illustrates this cold, hard reality by way of an analogy: “Whoever is among the living can be certain about this. A living dog is definitely better off than a dead lion” (CEB). In the days of the Old Testament, a lion was recognized as an honorable, stately animal with a well deserved reputation as “king of the beasts.” Dogs on the other hand, were viewed quite differently.
You see, the dogs of Solomon’s time were not recognized as “man’s best friend” and they were not usually kept as pets as we often do today. Instead, dogs were viewed as scavengers and they were looked upon in the same way that we might view rats or mice today. In Solomon’s day, packs of dogs would roam the streets, eat the garbage, fight against each other and attack people as well. Yet this is the word picture that the Teacher established for us in these verses when he said, “…a live dog is better off than a dead lion” (CEV).
The concept behind this illustration is that a person who is poor, but alive, at least has the ability to think, feel, interact, and maintain whatever capacity he or she may possess to find enjoyment in life. In Solomon’s opinion, such a person was better off than an honored and respected -but lifeless- body. The idea is that even when problems and difficulties exist for those who are alive, there is always the possibility that things may improve tomorrow. But no such possibility exists for those who have departed.
We’ll examine what that difficult reality means (as well as what it doesn’t mean) for those who are alive today next.
“For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 9:5 NIV).
Some have attempted to associate the Teacher’s statement in the passage quoted above with the idea that our physical death results in the termination of all conscious existence. In other words, the statement, “…the dead know not anything” (ASV) is taken to imply that everything we may associate with our conscious existence -things like awareness, recognition, the ability to think, feel, and reason- ends when we take our final breath. But is that really what Solomon meant to imply in this passage?
First, let’s consider the Teacher’s viewpoint in the context of this statement. Throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, our author’s thesis has been repeated over and over again: everything that occurs on earth (or “under the sun” to use Solomon’s terminology) without regard to God is ultimately pointless, useless, and futile. When viewed in this context, the Teacher’s conclusion is undeniable- it’s impossible to have any conscious interaction with someone who has passed away.
There is also logical consideration to this observation as well. For instance, how could the Teacher know that the dead know nothing? If physical death results in the cessation of conscious existence, then how could Solomon possibly know it? The Teacher would not be so foolish as to make such a logically inconsistent statement regarding life after death unless he was actually intending to make a very different point.
A better interpretation is offered by another commentator…
“Taken at face value, Solomon seems to be claiming that the dead have no more knowledge of anything. He wrote here, “the dead know nothing.” Likewise, the psalmist said, “in death there is no remembrance” (Ps. 6:5). But, this seems to contradict the many passages that speak of souls being conscious after death (e.g., 2 Sam. 12:23; 2 Cor. 5:8; Rev. 6:9).
The Bible teaches that the soul survives death in a conscious state of knowledge… The passages which say there is no knowledge or remembrance after death are speaking of no memory in this world, not of no memory of this world. Solomon clearly qualified his comment by saying it was “in the grave” (Ecc. 9:10) that there was “no remembrance.” He affirmed also that the dead do not know what is going on “under the sun” (9:6). But while they do not know what is happening on earth, they certainly do know what is going on in heaven (cf. Rev. 6:9). In short, these texts refer simply to man in relation to this present life—they say nothing about the life to come immediately after this one.” (1)
(1) Geisler, N. L., & Howe, T. A. (1992). When Critics Ask : A Popular Handbook On Bible Difficulties (259). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.
“The living at least know they will die, but the dead know nothing. They have no further reward, nor are they remembered. Whatever they did in their lifetime—loving, hating, envying—is all long gone. They no longer play a part in anything here on earth. So go ahead. Eat your food with joy, and drink your wine with a happy heart, for God approves of this! Wear fine clothes, with a splash of cologne!” (Ecclesiastes 9:5-8).
Whether you’re making a purchase, considering an investment, or negotiating a business deal, one thing that everyone likes to have is an option. An option provides us with the ability to choose between alternatives and as the Teacher implies in the passage above, life provides many options for the living.
For example, the entire range of human emotion represents an option for the living to experience. There are possibilities to know and be known. There are opportunities to learn, grow, and improve. But the same cannot be said for those who have passed away. The dead have nothing further to gain in life and for the vast majority of those who have passed on, subsequent generations will have little remembrance of anything they may have said, done, or accomplished in life.
For the living, breathing human being who is aware of his or her mortality, this knowledge opens up the option to enjoy everything that life has to offer. So in view of the brevity of life under the sun, the Teacher offers a suggestion: “So go eat your food and enjoy it; drink your wine and be happy, because that is what God wants you to do” (NCV).
Notice that the Teacher makes a connection between the enjoyment of eating and drinking with God’s approval of these things. This is another reminder that any ability we may have to find genuine enjoyment in life must ultimately come from the hand of God. For instance, the ability to enjoy a good meal is a gift from God that we should receive with appreciation. This thought echoes another of Solomon’s earlier observations: “I know the best thing we can do is to always enjoy life, because God’s gift to us is the happiness we get from our food and drink and from the work we do” (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 CEV).
But while we enjoy those blessings that God had graciously provided to us, it’s important to maintain an appropriate balance. As the Scriptures remind us in Romans 14:17-18…
“…the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men” (NKJV).
“Be happy and enjoy eating and drinking! God decided long ago that this is what you should do” (Ecclesiastes 9:7 CEV).
The people of Solomon’s time generally ate three major meals each day just as most people eat breakfast, lunch and dinner today. The first meal was often made up of bread with a filling of fruit, cheese or olives that could be eaten on the way to work. The Old Testament version of lunch was a mid-day meal that usually consisted of more bread, cheese, fruit and olives. Finally, there was an evening meal that was normally eaten around six or seven o’clock. This course typically featured a stew made from lentils or vegetables along with thin slices of bread for dipping. This was the big meal of the day and it involved a lot more than simply just eating. You see, this meal was seen as an opportunity for people to get together socially and it was very important from a cultural standpoint. It was a time of fellowship and conversation as everyone sat down to eat together.
So in light of the problems, disappointments, and adversities that we often experience under the sun, the Teacher counseled his readers to seek enjoyment in life wherever it may be found. For instance, the simple act of sharing a meal with family or friends offers an opportunity for enjoyment that people sometimes fail to appreciate. The idea is that the good things we experience in life are gifts that God allows us to enjoy. It would be a mistake to take these simple pleasures for granted, especially when we stop to consider the amount of time spent in dealing with the problems and complexities of daily life.
This idea builds on a concept that Solomon established earlier in the book of Ecclesiastes when he said, “…I decided that there was nothing better for a man to do than to enjoy his food and drink and his job. Then I realized that even this pleasure is from the hand of God. For who can eat or enjoy apart from him?” (Ecclesiastes 2:24 TLB). The point is that we should not take pleasure in these things but through them, recognizing them as God’s provision for both our sustenance and enjoyment.
Another commentator expresses that idea in this manner…
“Solomon issues ‘an urgent summons to action’ for the righteous to delight in God’s gifts ‘under the sun’ …After all, why should anyone who truly fears God have the joy of life stolen out from under him because of the unresolved perplexities still remaining in the partially disclosed plan of God?” (1)
(1) William D. Barrick, Th.D. Ecclesiastes: The Philippians of the Old Testament http://www.drbarrick.org/Website%20Files/Ecclesiastes%2009%20PBC.pdf
“Live happily with the woman you love through all the meaningless days of life that God has given you under the sun. The wife God gives you is your reward for all your earthly toil. Whatever you do, do well. For when you go to the grave, there will be no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom” (Ecclesiastes 9:9-10).
There are some important elements of truth that are tucked away within these verses for those who are willing to discover and apply them. For example, the Teacher counsels his readers to “Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun…” (NIV). We should first notice that this passage focuses on the enjoyment of life with one’s spouse. In saying this, Solomon reminds us that a marriage partner is just that- a partner in the enjoyment of life under the sun and not the source of it.
This may seem like an unnecessary distinction unless we have the opportunity to observe the pain and devastation of a person who has built the entirety of his or her emotional life upon another person who changed, moved, or passed away. It’s then that we can appreciate the importance of building our emotional lives around God first and then enjoying the friendships and relationships that He gives us for as long as He allows us to have them.
This doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to emotionally invest in others nor does it delegitimize the genuine pain and sorrow that often accompanies human loss. However, it does recognize that people change and God doesn’t- and it reminds us to make sure that the foundation of our emotional dependence is built upon God first and then upon others.
This passage also restates a theme that runs like a thread throughout the book of Ecclesiastes- the vanity, or meaninglessness of life under the sun. Since there is so much that doesn’t seem to make sense in life (even for those who are in Christ), it’s wise to seek out and enjoy the simple blessings that we receive along life’s journey, such as…
- Eating and drinking with enjoyment (verse seven).
- Living a God-honoring life (or, “Let your garments be always white…” [verse eight]).
- Looking and dressing well (or, “let your head lack no ointment” an ancient reference to cologne or deodorant [verse eight]).
- Taking pleasure in our relationships.
Virtually anyone can enjoy eating, drinking, and dressing well to whatever extent possible, and a God-honoring life of righteousness carries it’s own reward. These are the benefits that are within reach during our lives under the sun and the Teacher encouraged us to seek them out and enjoy them.
“I have observed something else under the sun. The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).
In Major League Baseball history, there were few contenders more qualified for the title of “Worst Baseball Franchise In History” than the New York Metropolitan Baseball Club Inc. better known as the New York Mets. The Mets started play in 1962 in a run down stadium with a roster of players that no one else wanted. The team finished that first season by losing a record 120 games and never finished higher than next-to-last place in any of the next seven seasons.
The Mets then proceeded to open the 1969 season by losing at home to a newly created team that was playing it’s very first game. With 25% of the 1969 schedule completed, the team had lost more games than it had won and with less than two months remaining in the regular season, the Mets were far behind the division leader.
It was then that something truly amazing occurred. The team won 39 of the final 50 games of the regular season to capture the division title and advance to the playoffs. The Mets then surprised many observers in the baseball world by winning their very first playoff series in three consecutive games to earn the right to appear in the World Series against a powerful and heavily favored opponent.
After losing the first game of the World Series, the Mets then went on to win the next four games to complete one of the most improbable upset victories in major sports history. The team that had never come close to winning anything in it’s history had become World Champions.
Although its probably safe to say that Solomon was not much of a baseball fan, we do know that he used a similar sporting analogy to illustrate the uncertainties of life under the sun when he said, “I realized another thing, that in this world fast runners do not always win the races…” (GNB). While the sporting world provides one of the best vehicles to illustrate the reality that lies behind the passage quoted above, we can find some other examples in the military, business, and educational worlds as well- and we’ll study a few of those examples next.
“I realized another thing, that in this world fast runners do not always win the races, and the brave do not always win the battles. The wise do not always earn a living, intelligent people do not always get rich, and capable people do not always rise to high positions.(GNB) But time and unpredictable events overtake all of them” (GW) (Ecclesiastes 9:11).
As he surveyed life under the sun, the Teacher identified one seemingly unreliable thing that he could rely upon: chance, or the unknown and unpredictable variable associated with human existence. To support this idea, Solomon offered five corresponding examples taken from different areas of life:
In athletics, an exceptional athlete may not always win the game, race, or contest
A superior armed force does not guarantee victory in a military engagement
The wisest and most educated person isn’t always hired for employment
The qualities of discernment, understanding, and intellect do not necessarily ensure that someone will grow wealthy
In business, a person with superior capability doesn’t always rise to a position of leadership
The point is that talent, skill, intelligence, or ability (no matter how impressive) cannot absolutely guarantee a desired outcome- and for the person who fails to factor his or her Creator into the equation of daily life, time and chance become unknown forces that can neutralize any supposed advantage. The New Testament book of James draws our attention to this concept when it says…
“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:13–15 NIV).
Jesus also illustrated this idea by way of a parable…
“…A rich man had a fertile farm that produced fine crops. In fact, his barns were full to overflowing-he couldn’t get everything in. He thought about his problem, and finally exclaimed, ‘I know-I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones! Then I’ll have room enough. And I’ll sit back and say to myself, “Friend, you have enough stored away for years to come. Now take it easy! Wine, women, and song for you!”‘
But God said to him, ‘Fool! Tonight you die. Then who will get it all?’ Yes, every man is a fool who gets rich on earth but not in heaven” (Luke 12:16-21 TLB).
From the Teacher’s limited perspective, it appeared that the events and circumstances of life were driven by a combination of fate, coincidence, happenstance, or luck. For Solomon, a favorable outcome might result from simply being in the right place at the right time while an unfavorable development could be attributed to a bad break, tough luck, or some other misfortune. In this regard, the Teacher was not very different from those who feel that their own existence rides upon the ever changing waves of “fate” today.
For example, there are many people who hold on to certain items that they believe will bring “good luck” or protection from harm in an uncertain world. Then there are others who seek to avoid contact with anything that supposedly leads to “bad luck.” For those who place their trust in such things, there is the ever-present possibility of being “…trapped at some evil moment when we least expect it” (GNB) by the unpredictable variables of time and chance.
However, the Scriptures tell us something very different. For example, Psalm 31:15 says (in part) “My times are in your hands…” which indicates that God ultimately has control over the events of our daily lives. And 2 Corinthians 9:8 tells us that “…God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work” (NIV). In other words, God is One who ultimately provides for our needs.
Another problem is that Solomon’s perspective actually reveals a hidden lack of faith. For instance, if we believe that human beings are simply victims of time and chance, then we are saying is that God has no real control over the course of human events- or at least that He is not powerful enough to overcome anything that might bring us trouble or misfortune.
When someone chooses to reject a relationship with the Creator, he or she may feel a need to rely on superstition or some object that will supposedly offer protection and success. This is not new of course. Back in the days of the Old Testament people often put their faith in objects (or idols) made of wood, stone, or metal instead of the one true God. Those who place their trust in Christ shouldn’t fall prey to the same mistake today.
“Here is another bit of wisdom that has impressed me as I have watched the way our world works. There was a small town with only a few people, and a great king came with his army and besieged it” (Ecclesiastes 9:13-14).
As a good communicator, Solomon knew that he might quickly lose the attention of an audience if his message descended into a boring, repetitive monologue. So the Teacher worked to keep his message fresh and interesting by employing the use of something called a “parable.” A parable is a teaching method that utilizes a short, simple story to illustrate an important spiritual truth or moral lesson. One example of a parabolic message can be found beginning in the passage quoted above.
While its possible that the scenario described in this passage refers to a genuine historic event, the question of it’s historical nature is really just a secondary issue. The real emphasis should be placed on a good understanding of the events described within this parable and how that understanding might be applied.
For example, virtually every reputable city in the Biblical era was enclosed by the safety and security of a wall. City walls were often massive structures that were 6 to 9 meters (20 to 30 feet) thick. The gates, just as massive, had bars with guardhouses atop the wall. Often the walls had towers. (1) So a city without a wall was obviously vulnerable to attack, but a good wall helped offer protection from potential invaders.
One commentary describes how the practice of penetrating the defenses of a walled city took place…
“(A siege was a) prolonged military blockade of a city or fortress to force it to surrender. The purpose of a siege was to take away the advantage of the city’s massive defensive walls by cutting off its supplies and contacts from the outside. Without supplies, the defending city would be forced to surrender or to attack the besieging army. The attacking army would sometimes press the siege by trying to scale the walls with ladders or ramps. Other techniques included battering down the walls or tunneling under them. But attack was dangerous because the city’s defenders were well protected and could carry on the battle from a superior position.
A siege might continue for several months. To shorten a siege, the attacking army usually tried to capture a city’s water supplies. These were usually situated outside the city walls. Much of the warfare described in the Old Testament is siege warfare.” (2)
So things looked pretty bleak for the little town in Solomon’s parable- but help was about to arrive from an unexpected source.
(1) “City” Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers
(2) “Siege” Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Copyright © 1986, Thomas Nelson Publishers
“There was a small town with only a few people, and a great king came with his army and besieged it. A poor, wise man knew how to save the town, and so it was rescued. But afterward no one thought to thank him” (Ecclesiastes 9:14-15).
It was a day like any other day- until the swirling clouds of dust began to appear upon the horizon. It was the sign of an approaching army- and it was moving steadily towards the city. Everyone within the city limits knew what that meant.
Within a short time, an armed force would surround the town. The municipal leaders would be summoned to the top of the city wall by a spokesman for the invaders and given the option to peacefully surrender. If the offer was accepted, everyone would become subject to a new ruler. That could mean forced labor, compulsory relocation, or whatever the new government deemed appropriate. If the offer was refused, the siege would begin. The army would construct ramps against the exterior of the city wall in an attempt to gain entrance. Battering rams would repeatedly pummel the city gates. Tunnels would be dug in an attempt to enter the city from below.
If the city could hold out against the attack, supplies of food and water would quickly grow scarce. Economic activity would cease. Armament supplies would run low. All available resources would be directed towards the war effort. If the city’s defenses failed, every male would be executed by the invading army. Women and children would become property of the victors and regarded as nothing more than human machines to be used and abused by members of the new regime. If a young woman of the city was found to be attractive and desirable, she might be kept to meet the physical needs of an officer. If not, she would be enslaved like everyone else.
The gates were quickly closed and secured. Weapons were retrieved from storage. Ordinary citizens manned defensive positions and waited for the inevitable. But this time, the seemingly inevitable was not to be.
You see, there was a man within the city. Everyone recognized him but no one gave him much thought. He was quiet and reserved, and judging from his appearance, it was clear that he had very little money. Yet he was the man who came forward with the resources necessary to save the city and it’s inhabitants. Unfortunately, his lack of status ensured that he would never receive the accolades he so richly deserved for rescuing so many.
So what’s the point behind this little drama? Well, the Teacher will answer that question for us next.
“A poor, wise man knew how to save the town, and so it was rescued. But afterward no one thought to thank him. So even though wisdom is better than strength, those who are wise will be despised if they are poor. What they say will not be appreciated for long” (Ecclesiastes 9:15-16 NLT).
In our “what have you done for me lately” world, wisdom might be recognized and applauded- but usually not for very long. While the rich, the powerful, the athletic, and the physically attractive are often widely known and admired, the wise person may be more likely to labor in obscurity.
To illustrate this point, the Teacher offered the story of a poor, but wise man who was responsible for implementing a plan that delivered his city from the attack of a superior armed force. While this brings to mind Solomon’s earlier observation that a superior armed force does not necessarily guarantee victory in a military engagement, there is another point to be made within this parable.
While wisdom may be superior to strength (military or otherwise), it is not always rewarded in accordance with it’s real value. This may be due to any number of external factors including things like appearance, social standing, education, and/or one’s relative financial worth. Since our physical existence is temporal and impermanent, we often tend to value similar external qualities (like physical or military strength) more highly than the fundamental values of wisdom, understanding, or good reasoning.
This is why someone may present a well reasoned, fundamentally sound, and logically consistent argument supporting a concept such as Intelligent Design or the evidence for God’s existence and find that argument rejected by those who “feel” differently. Like our lives under the sun, feelings are transient and changeable and they often find a more comfortable fit within the fabric of our daily lives than the more stable characteristics of wisdom and good judgment.
This reality can sometimes result in disappointment for those who seek to help others apply Biblical wisdom. Yet those who follow Jesus can be assured that any wise counsel offered on His behalf will never go unnoticed, even if that counsel is rejected or unappreciated. As Jesus Himself once said…
“Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35-36 NIV).
“Better to hear the quiet words of a wise person than the shouts of a foolish king. Better to have wisdom than weapons of war, but one sinner can destroy much that is good” (Ecclesiastes 9:17-18).
Solomon spent a large portion of Ecclesiastes chapter two comparing the relative value of wisdom and foolishness. At that time, he determined that wisdom (in the short term at least) had more value than foolishness and he underscored that idea once again in passage quoted above. However, while wisdom clearly offered certain advantages, the Teacher did identify one potential danger: “…one sinner can destroy much good” (HCSB).
If you read this passage closely, you may notice a subtle shift in Solomon’s perspective. For example, we might have expected Solomon to complete the final thought of this section by concluding that one foolish person was capable of destroying much good. But instead, the Teacher chose to introduce a moral component into his analysis by using the word “sinner” to identify such a person.
To understand the significance of this change, we should remember that the term “morality” refers to a standard of right conduct. In other words, our moral standards tell us what is right and wrong in life. Those standards (or beliefs) are then expressed through the choices that we make on a daily basis. So in short, our morals tell us what we ought to do. This is important because people generally act on what they believe even if they don’t immediately recognize the moral reasoning behind their actions.
In this passage, the Teacher links the idea of a potentially destructive act with the person who is a “sinner.” Now most people probably have a general idea that “sin” refers to something bad, but what exactly is it? Well, the word “sin” as used within the Scripture means “to miss the mark.” (1) To illustrate the meaning of this word, we might imagine an archer shooting at a bull’s-eye. The archer takes aim, draws his bow, and lets the arrow go- but in this instance, the arrow falls short and lands in the ground in front of the target. The archer has missed the mark.
Like the archer in our illustration, the Biblical definition of “sin” doesn’t just mean doing something immoral or wrong- it means “to miss the mark.” It means failing to live up to being everything that God originally created us to be. Another definition of sin is “a path, a life-style, or act deviating from that which God has marked out.” (2) So in the end, the person with a moral compass that deviates from the plan that God has intended for him or her can often destroy “much that is good.”
(1) Fausset’s Bible Dictionary, Electronic Database Copyright © 1998, 2003, 2006 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved
(2) Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, Copyright © 1985, Thomas Nelson Publishers