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 the men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all.
This chapter actually concludes the part of Ecclesiastes which is the most difficult to understand and interpret. Up to this point Solomon has written a lot of things which, to a Christian, do not make any sense at all. What is the explanation of this? Scholars vary in their explanations; but the conclusion must be; (1) that Solomon is rehearsing the allegations of materialistic unbelievers with a view to refuting them in his conclusion (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14), (2) that he was writing of what he saw `under the sun,’ and not of what he believed, or (3) that, “Solomon, for the time being, had abandoned his faith in God, altogether,” and that his words throughout Ecclesiastes thus far indicate that, “Man would not know that there was any fundamental difference between a man and a beast.” This writer has been unable to find a convincing answer as to which of these explanations should be adopted.
Part of the reason for this uncertainty lies in the enigma of Solomon’s life. He was a man greatly loved by the Lord, endowed with great wisdom, who prayed a magnificent prayer at the dedication of the Temple, and who was the most honored and glorified person (from the human standpoint) in the whole history of Israel. In spite of this, however, any careful student of God’s Word must conclude that the magnitude of Solomon’s wickedness was immeasurable. It is this fact that suggests the possibility that Ecclesiastes is generally a statement of Solomon’s unbelief; but if that is true, it would mean that the conclusion in Ecclesiastes 12 was later added by an inspired writer, as some scholars affirm (although without any proof whatever). Another explanation of the magnificent “conclusion of the whole matter” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14) is that Solomon finally came to his senses and returned to the love and service of God. This is the interpretation that seems most logical to this writer.
“The Jews generally, and also St. Jerome, hold the book to have been written by Solomon following his repentance and restoration from the idolatry into which he had fallen through the influence of the heathen women he had married.”
We find it impossible to believe that “all is vanity,” a declaration that occurs dozens of times in the book. Nor can it be true that men and animals have the same fate. Who can believe that, “Eat, drink, and be joyful,” is, in any sense whatever, the ultimate meaning and employment of life? It is impossible to believe that the “dead know nothing,” except in a limited sense. Moses and Elijah stood on the mountain of transfiguration and carried on a conversation with Jesus Christ. Of course, Solomon lived before the magnificent revelation of life and immortality that were brought to mankind in the life and teachings of the Christ; but Solomon’s father David certainly would never have said a lot of things that one finds in Ecclesiastes.
Also, the idea of the hopelessness and futility of life, stressed throughout Ecclesiastes, was by no means accepted by the patriarchs. They most certainly believed in the possibility, if not the certainty, of life after death. Abraham was willing to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, because, “He believed that God was able to raise Isaac from the dead” (Hebrews 11:19).
From all these considerations, this writer favors the view that Solomon indeed repented (even as did Manasseh), and that after his return to God, he was inspired to write this book, and that many of the things written in Ecclesiastes represent views which Solomon once had erroneously received, and which, when he wrote Ecclesiastes, he would reject and outlaw altogether in his conclusion (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
We have previously mentioned Paul’s description of his life under the Mosaic Law (Romans 7), which is analogous to what was probably Solomon’s life (and beliefs) prior to his repentance. In all of Ecclesiastes, we should never forget that it was written long ages before the glorious revelation of the New Testament was delivered to mankind, certified and sealed by the death, burial and resurrection of the Son of God.
ALL IS IN THE HAND OF GOD
“For all this I laid to my heart, even to explore all this: that the righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God; whether it be love or hatred, man knoweth it not; all is before them.”
The grand truth stated here is that God is in control. Everything that occurs, in the final analysis, happens under the permissive will of God.
The meaning of the latter part of this verse is that, “We are unable to discern from that which we may observe taking place in life, which men are living under God’s displeasure, and which ones are those whom he loves.”
THE SAME FATE COMES TO ALL
“All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous and the wicked; to the good and to the clean and the unclean; to him that sacrificeth and to him that sacrificeth not; as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one event unto all: yea, also the heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart while they live, and after that they go to the dead. For to him that is joined with all the living there is hope; for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. As well their love, as their hatred and their envy, is perished long ago; neither have they any more a portion forever in anything that is done under the sun.”
We should preface this paragraph with imaginary words from Solomon: “This is the way I viewed things while in rebellion against God.” If this should not be considered a valid understanding of the paragraph, then we should limit what is said here as a declaration of the way things appear when they are viewed purely from an earthly and materialistic viewpoint, as characteristic of what is done “under the sun.”
“All things come alike to all” (Ecclesiastes 9:2). There is no way that this can be strictly true. True, the event of death comes to all; but this says, “all things” come alike to all men!
“They go to the dead” (Ecclesiastes 9:3). This, as it stands in the passage, is cited as the end of everything. And, in the earthly sense, of course it is. This is an obstinate fact; but God has placed in man’s heart some equally obstinate intuitions that contradict it. “He has set eternity in their heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). And this pushes us toward an answer that lies beyond the pages of Ecclesiastes; and that is, “The prospect (even the certainty) of reward and punishment in the world to come.”
Loader interpreted what is written here as saying that, “Religious and moral qualities of man do not have the weight of a feather in affecting his fate.” This might not be the correct understanding of what is written here; but the passage surely allows that as one understanding of it. One thing is sure, “If that is what the text says, it is a lie,” and must be understood as the false teaching Ecclesiastes was designed to refute and deny.
“For the living know that they shall die” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). This knowledge on the part of the living is here cited as the one and only reason given in the text that living is any better than being dead. This cannot be true, because the living may still turn to God, obey the holy gospel and attain unto eternal life, whereas that opportunity does not belong to the dead.
The incredible pessimism of this passage staggers one’s imagination. “Such an alleged `advantage’ of living as compared with death only serves to strengthen the emphatic finality of death.” But death is not final! “It is appointed unto man once to die, and after this cometh judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). Solomon’s conclusion (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14) refutes what is written here.
“The dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). The Seventh Day Adventists have taken this verse as the proof of their false doctrine that, “Resurrection is a restoration to life of the non-existent dead … No soul is conscious after death.” But is not this in the Word of God? Certainly, just like the word of Satan is found in the Word of God (Genesis 3:4). It is not written that God said, “The dead do not know anything,” but that Solomon, one of the wickedest men who ever lived, said it. Even if Solomon believed it, which is questionable, because he might have been recounting his religious philosophy during the times of his apostasy, – but even if he believed it, it could not possibly be true. The glorious one who is Greater than Solomon gave us the story of the rich man and Lazarus; and the rich man is represented as being, not merely conscious after death, but in terrible pain and anxiety regarding his brethren who had not yet died, but who were living wickedly as he had lived. (See Luke 16:19-31). Oh yes, this is a parable, but it is not a fable; and one of the characteristics of a parable is that it is based upon an event which either happened or could have happened. Jesus never used parables to teach lies to his followers.
Also, in Revelation we have this, “I saw underneath the altar the souls of them that had been slain for the Word of God, and for the testimony which they held; and they cried with a great voice, saying, How long, O Master, the holy and true, dost not thou judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth”?[9″>Revelation 6:9-10.”> In the light of what the Christ has said, one may safely set aside what the wicked Solomon is here reported in God’s Word to have said.
The Seventh Day Adventist notion that the resurrection is the creation of the non-existent dead is also an outright contradiction of Christ’s declaration that “God is the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, and that he is the God of the living, not of the dead.” (Matthew 22:32). This clearly states that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are living (even in the state of death) and that they are not non-existent.
EAT, DRINK, ETC, FOR TOMORROW YOU DIE
“Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God hath already accepted thy works. Let thy garments be always white; and let not thy head lack oil. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of thy life of vanity, which he (God) hath given thee under the sun, all thy days of vanity; for that is thy portion in life, and in thy labor wherein thou laborest under the sun. Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, that do with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in Sheol, whither thou goest.”
This, of course, is Epicureanism. “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” This philosophy is absolutely worthless, unless death is the end of everything. As Paul stated it, “If the dead are not raised up, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). Solomon has repeatedly advocated this doctrine, not only here, but in Ecclesiastes 1:9; 1:15; 3:1-9; and in Ecclesiastes 3:14-15. This was evidently the position that he accepted during the days of his apostasy. One question that arises from this interpretation is that of whether or not Solomon ever repented and turned to God as the Jews allege that he did. We find no Biblical support of that idea anywhere. Nevertheless, that is a necessary corollary of our interpretation of Ecclesiastes.
“God hath already accepted thy works” (Ecclesiastes 9:7) “… Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest … which he (God) hath given thee” (Ecclesiastes 9:9). Here we have a glimpse of the penitent and restored Solomon honoring God for his marvelous gifts and praising him for the blessings given to the sons of men, even while he is still relating the stubborn and rebellious things that he had once believed. Note that he referred twice in these few verses to life as “vanity.” There is also here a favorable mention of marriage and the loving of one wife “all the days of thy vanity” (Ecclesiastes 9:9), which is surprising enough from an author like Solomon.
The great value of Ecclesiastes is that it elaborates fully the absolute worthlessness and vanity of life on earth by any man who lives without the fear of God and submission to the divine authority of our Creator.
THE RACE IS NOT TO THE SWIFT; NOR THE BATTLE TO THE STRONG
“I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare, even so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.”
This passage, one of the most famous in Ecclesiastes, should be understood as dealing with unexpected exceptions to what may be generally expected. The swift usually win the race, and the battle usually goes to the strong, but not always! It was an untimely rain that defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, and a purposeless bow-shot that slew Ahab. All kinds of happenings may intervene to make:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Gang aft a-gley!
An’ lea’e us naught but grief and pain
For promised joy.
In the recent Olympic races, the swiftest runner, unanimously favored to win, suffered a fall; and another took the prize.
In his rebellious days, Solomon looked upon all such disappointments as more proof that, “all is vanity.”
Incidentally, we have often cited Ecclesiastes 9:11 here as another reason why the righteous sometimes suffer, whereas the wicked sometimes prosper and are honored. This is only one among half a dozen other reasons.
“Time and chance happeneth to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). All kinds of unpredictable and uncontrollable events may, and frequently do, change good fortune into bad fortune, or vice versa. Kidner thought that there was a bare possibility that Paul had this verse in mind when he wrote, “So it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that hath mercy” (Romans 9:16); but he pointed out that, “Paul’s concept is far different from that here. Paul noted that God has mercy upon all mankind, but there is not a trace of any thought of God’s compassion here.”
THE POOR WISE MAN WHO DELIVERED A CITY
“I have also seen wisdom under the sun on this wise, and it seemed great unto me: There was a little city, and few men within it; and there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it. And there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man.”
This incident was evidently included in the book here as another example of the `vanity’ which the author found in everything that he saw `under the sun.’ Indeed, there is something distressing in this.
Look at the monuments men have built all over the world. Whom do they honor? Generally, they honor those who butchered their thousands and tens of thousands on bloody battlefields, but not the wise statesmen who negotiated peace. “How warped are our human value systems! Jesus said, `Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God'” (Matthew 5:9).”
The sad fact of this little city’s true benefactor having been forgotten is only one of a million other similar situations in which there have been gross miscarriages of human justice and even intelligence. Why? The status of our human race is the only explanation that is needed. Our race, which is in rebellion against God, is divinely condemned to death. “Thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:17). If one leaves God and his merciful provision for man’s redemption out of consideration, our wretched race, wallowing in the miseries, disease and violence which are the fruit of its own wickedness, is indeed `vanity of vanities.’ Solomon’s analysis of what he saw `under the sun’ was profoundly correct, if the observer leaves God out of his analysis, as Solomon was obviously doing in this part of Ecclesiastes.
“No man remembered that same poor man” (Ecclesiastes 9:15). One of the shameful characteristics of our fallen race is that of ingratitude. Abandoned children, adopted by Christian parents and reared even in luxury have been recently indicted for murder of their parents! Today’s headline in the Houston Post (July 22,1993) highlights the story of a benefactor who stopped to aid stranded motorists, and they tried to rob him! Human gratitude! Where is it? Shakespeare wrote:
Blow! Blow! Thou winter wind
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude.
Freeze, Freeze thou bitter sky,
Thou dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot.
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy tooth is not so sharp
As friend remembered not.
We do not accept the following translation which varies from the American Standard Version, and the Revised Standard Version, but we cite it here as an interesting variation. “And there was found in it (the city) a poor (but) wise man; he could have saved the city by his wisdom, but no one thought about the poor man.”
“This means that, by a social prejudice based on class-consciousness, wisdom was made non-operational with the result that the city was not saved.”
This interpretation, of course, relies on the variable rendition.
THE SUPERIORITY OF WISDOM
“Then said I, Wisdom is better than strength: nevertheless the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard. The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the cry of him that ruleth among fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war; but one sinner destroyeth much good.”
“The poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard” (Ecclesiastes 9:16). Loader understood these words as justifying his unusual translation given above.
These last three verses stress both the value and the vulnerability of wisdom. Yes, wisdom is more valuable than strength or weapons of war; “But we are left here with a suspicion that, `In human politics the last word generally goes to the loud voice of Ecclesiastes 9:17, or to the cold steel of Ecclesiastes 9:18.'”
“But one sinner destroyeth much good” (Ecclesiastes 9:18). Achan, one sinner alone, caused the tremendous defeat of all God’s people at Ai (Joshua 7); and Doeg, one sinner alone, caused the murder of the priests at Nob (1 Samuel 22). Bathsheba, one sinner alone, by her nude behavior, caused the fall of David and the ultimate ruin of all Israel through her son Solomon and his son Rehoboam. It was to David’s magnificent forgiveness, that we must attribute the fact that he never blamed Bathsheba for this. However, no impartial observer could possibly overlook the responsibility of Bathsheba and the part she played in all that.
With these verses, we enter the final phase of Ecclesiastes which contains a large number of proverbs, which may be construed as the author’s answer to the question of “What is good for man”? (Ecclesiastes 2:3; Ecclesiastes 6:12). “A great part of these seem to have a special reference to servants of a king,” as would be natural enough in the writings of Solomon.
Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.