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Tremper Longman: Summary of Chap. 9

In ch. 9, Qohelet gives advice in the context of statements of deep skepticism.  Indeed, this chapter might be judged the most depressing of the entire book.

Qohelet begins the chapter with a powerful evaluation of life (9:1-10).  He states that it does not matter who one is or what one does, death renders everything meaningless.  After all, death is the end of everything for an individual (vv. 6, 10).  From this basic, though sad, truth, Qohelet advises his readers to seize the joy of the day.

The next unit (9:11-12) continues the depressing thoughts of the previous one by asserting that time and chance rule the lives and the deaths of all people.  Qohelet once again puts an emphasis on death – that is, no one knows when the end is going to come.  There is absolutely nothing that anyone can do to prevent or predict one’s death.

This appropriately leads to two further units that question the effectiveness of wisdom.  First, wisdom has its limits (vv. 13-16).  A wise man may save a city, but he will not be remembered.  Second, wisdom has power and is, on a surface level, to be preferred to foolishness, but it does not take much to spoil the good that it might produce (vv. 1-18).

George Hendry: The wisdom which looks for light beyond the horizon of death receives confirmation from the darkness and confusion of the scene on this side.  So, from his scanning of the horizon, Ecclesiastes saw that under the sun, the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong (v. 11).  So true it is that we walk by faith, not by sight.  “Faith is of things which do not appear.  And so, that there may be room for faith, it is necessary that all things which are its objects should be hidden.  They cannot, however, be more remotely hidden than under their contrary objects, feelings and experiences” (Luther, De servo arbitrio).  What counts in the world’s judgment is wealth and self-advertisement; genuine, unostentatious merit goes unrecognized, unrewarded.  This Ecclesiastes describes ironically as the wisdom which he saw under the sun and it seemed great to him (v. 13).

Derek Kidner: Time and chance are paired, no doubt because they both have a way of taking matters suddenly out of our hands. This is obvious enough where chance is concerned—for providence operates in secret, and to man’s view life is largely made up of steps into the unknown and events out of the blue, any of which may change our whole pattern of existence in a moment. With regard to time, chapter 3 with its ‘time to be born,. . . time to die’, and so on, has already shown how relentlessly our lives are swung from one extreme to another by the tidal pull of forces we do not control. 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 third thing to upset our calculations is presented to us rather poignantly in the little parable of verses 13–16, and in the reflections which follow it to round off the chapter = the fickleness of men. . .

In the pattern of the 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 f.) 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.

Duncan Ross: Last time, we saw that the author told us that because life is filled with pain and injustice, we must enjoy life as much as possible.  God is the Author of all pleasures and knowing him and rightly relating to him is the greatest of all pleasures.  The Preacher says we must work at enjoying life—like a person getting ready to attend a formal banquet. We also saw that he counsels us to work hard and enjoy our work because we’re here on this earth for only a short time.  In today’s text, he’s advancing that argument.  Not only is life brief, it’s also unpredictable and that has very real implications for our lives.

As we have seen before in this book, the over-arching topic of our text this morning is the supremacy of wisdom—but as we’ll see, that broad heading covers many different truths.  The first few verses (and the ones on which we’ll spend the most time) could be summarized by this statement:  Wise people live in the light of life’s uncertainties.


A.  (:11) What’s the Point of Trying Hard in Life?

  1. Futility of Life Under the Sun

I again saw under the sun

Douglas Miller: The opening two verses take up the theme of the previous unit (9:1-10) that experiences happen to people regardless of their righteousness or wisdom. But the verses also serve to begin a new unit (indicated by Again, NRSV), which continues what the Teacher has been saying on that topic. He reports his further discoveries under the sun, in the realm of everyday experience, concerning five relationships.

  1. Five Inequities of Life – accomplishments which do not guarantee success

a.  “that the race is not to the swift”

b.  “and the battle is not to the warriors

c.  “and neither is bread to the wise

We will be looking more at the poor wise man in the last section of this chapter

d.  “nor wealth to the discerning

Far from it – those with the greatest discernment in the NT church had very few material resources

e.  “nor favor to men of ability

James 4 – you must say “If the Lord wills …” – you are not the one in control

  1. Enigma of Finiteness and Fairness – Fate is Unpredictable and Undeserved

for time and chance overtake them all

Look at all of the cosmetic gimmicks designed to try to slow down or thwart Father Time – let’s cover over the wrinkles; let’s see how long we can prolong our looks and even our life.

Who knows when your next breath will be your last?

John MacArthur: Wisdom cannot guarantee good outcomes because of what appear to be so many unpredictable contingencies.

Walter Kaiser: To further stimulate men to action, Solomon makes three supporting arguments that may be stated in the following proverbs (9:11-12):

  • It is not in the man himself that walks to direct his steps (Jer. 10:23).
  • The Lord may save by many or by few (1 Sam. 14:6).
  • Time and events [destiny] come to all (Eccles. 9:11).

Human ability cannot guarantee success. In fact, more frequently than not, those who trust the most in their own abilities are the very persons who are caught unsuspectingly and suddenly by their own devices. Those who appear to be doing so well in this life end up being the greatest losers around. “If we could see beyond today as God can see,” sang the songwriter. But we would conclude his song somewhat differently to fit the truth here: “Then we would not begin to doubt and often complain.” When men do not pay attention to the fact that their “time” of judgment is ever near, they are trapped, just as fish and birds are caught in nets (v. 12). Believers must not judge these books by the covers; things are not what they appear to be. God is in charge. Men will be judged. Men must diligently work with all their might to the glory of God in every aspect of life, for the night is coming when the opportunity will be lost and all of life will be reviewed by the God who knows absolutely what is right and what is wrong.

John Schultz: The most striking word in these verses is the word “chance,” Hebrew word pega`, which is derived from a word meaning “impact.” The word only appears one other time in Scripture where Solomon, answering King Hiram of Tyre, writes: “You know that because of the wars waged against my father David from all sides, he could not build a temple for the Name of the Lord his God until the Lord put his enemies under his feet. But now the Lord my God has given me rest on every side, and there is no adversary or disaster.”  The Pulpit Commentary observes: “Our English word ‘chance’ conveys an erroneous impression. What is meant is rather ‘incident,’ such as a calamity, disappointment, unforeseen occurrence. All human purposes are liable to be changed or controlled by circumstances beyond man’s power, and incapable of explanation. A hand higher than man’s disposes events, and success is conditioned by superior laws which work unexpected results.” The term “act of God” as used by insurance companies to indicate events beyond human control would explain the matter quite sufficiently. When questioned, however, most insurance companies would deny any spiritual connotation in the use of the phrase.

B.  (:12) Man’s End Comes Suddenly and Surprisingly

  1. The Time of Man’s End Is Unknown

Moreover, man does not know his time:

  1. Two Illustrations of Being Trapped Unaware

a.  Fish in a Net

like fish caught in a treacherous net

b.  Birds in a Snare

and birds trapped in a snare,

The fish and the birds did not wake up that morning and go forth with the expectation that they were in grave danger that day; in fact that day looked like any other when they could spend their time not in the panic of anxiety but enjoying God’s gracious provision for their daily sustenance – flying around from place to place; paddling around in the depths of the sea – enjoying the good life – Then all of a sudden out of nowhere – Zap – they are captured and killed – no time to get their life in order; no time to say good bye to their young – destruction suddenly falls on them

  1. The Unexpectedness of Man’s End

so the sons of men are ensnared at an evil time

  1. The Suddenness of Man’s End

when it suddenly falls on them.”

Warren Wiersbe: our abilities (:11-12) and opportunities (:13-18)  are no guarantee of success

Chuck Swindoll: various ways to view life.  Although each is popular, each has its own set of problems.

  • Optimism – rose colored glasses; not facing reality
  • Pessimism – grim existence; lack of joy
  • Suspicion – everyone is out to get you; lack of trust
  • Fatalism – whatever will be will be; lack of hope


A.  (:13) Expectation that Wisdom Would be Rewarded as Impressive

Also this I came to see as wisdom under the sun, and it impressed me.”

We would expect wisdom to be impressive; we would expect others to value wisdom and exalt it and promote it and reward it … we would be wrong!

B.  (:14-15) Parable of Wisdom Forgotten and Unrewarded – Packed with meaning

  1. (:14)  Desperate Situation

There was a small city with few men in it and a great king came to it,

surrounded it and constructed large siegeworks against it.

  1. (:15a)  Deliverance by the Wisdom of a Poor Nobody

But there was found in it a poor wise man

and he delivered the city by his wisdom.

  1. (:15b)  Point of the Parable: Forgetfulness instead of Recognition

Yet no one remembered that poor man.”

Who knows this parable?  A forgotten parable!

  • Contrast between the great king and the small city and poor nobody
  • Contrast between the superior offensive troops and armaments and the weak Defenses
  • Miraculous deliverance accomplished by Wisdom – What Power!
  • Unbelievable and Pitiful Conclusion: “Yet no one remembered that poor man.”

Why didn’t the city bless the poor man for his heroic efforts?

David Hubbard: Here not fickleness but forgetfulness is the point—forgetfulness just when “wisdom” had worked a surprising victory. The details are designed to highlight wisdom’s prowess:

(1)  The odds against the “little city,” (we would call it a “town”) were long—its population was meager (“few men”) and its enemy formidable (“great king”);

(2)  the siege left the town in dire straits — “besieged” is literally “surrounded,” and “great snares” likely refer to earthen siegeworks or ramparts built around the town to enable the enemy warriors to throw spears, shoot arrows, and ultimately storm the town despite its defenses. . .

Given the drama of the story, the climax is a frightful letdown. We would expect the “poor” man to receive all the accolades the town could muster and to be promoted to a place of authority and honor. Instead, “no one remembered” him (v. 15). Koheleth has made his point: “Wisdom” is invaluable; it can accomplish incredible feats; yet it can also be tossed on the scrap heap of oblivion, even by those who have benefited richly from it. Nothing is said about how the victory was accomplished—only about who did it and wisdom’s stellar role. All unnecessary details are omitted to spotlight how indispensable is wisdom and how readily it can be shelved when the battle is over.

Lessons for us:

  • Don’t pursue wisdom with the thought that this world will receive you as a hero and thank you for your contributions – look at all my sacrifices; look at all my contributions
  • God will reward wisdom abundantly – because you surely aren’t getting the reward in this life
  • How did Christ feel after He cleansed the ten lepers and they failed to return and give thanks?
  • Look at the apostles – silver and gold have I none – very poor men … but rich in wisdom and in their contribution to the foundation of the church

C.  (:16-18) Contrast Between the Value of Wisdom and the Futility of Wisdom

David Hubbard: The three summary sayings (vv. 16–18) underscore these messages.

  • The first (v. 16) reflects on the irony that wisdom outranks strength—Koheleth has already informed us, “Nor is the battle to the strong” (9:11)—and yet if the person who possesses wisdom is not duly respected, the words fall on deaf ears.
  • The second (v. 17) makes the positive point that the “words of the wise” (even if their speaker is a “poor” man) ought to carry their own authority—neither the volume of the voice (“quietly” vs. “shout”) nor the office of the speaker (“wise” vs. “ruler of fools”) should be the test of accuracy.
  • The third saying (v. 18) affirms that, as the story has proved, “wisdomoutfights weaponry (see Prov. 21:22, 31), yet a real fool (as “sinner” seems to mean here; see 2:26; 7:20, 26: 8:12; 9:2) can undo the positive results (“good,” Heb. tôb) accomplished by wisdom.
  1. (:16)  Better than Strength?  Despised and Ignored

So I said, ‘Wisdom is better than strength.’

                        But the wisdom of the poor man is despised and his words are not heeded.”

John MacArthur: This is true because he lacks status and position.

Craig Bartholomew: So although wisdom might appear to be better than might, what value is it if wisdom is ignored and rejected as soon as the crisis is over?

  1. (:17-18)  Better than Political and Military Power?  Fragile and Easily Destroyed

a.  (:17)  Political Power

The words of the wise heard in quietness

are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools.

b.  (:18)  Military Power

Wisdom is better than weapons of war,

but one sinner destroys much good.

Robert Laurin: The quiet speech of a wise man is heeded more readily than the clamorous chatterings of a loudmouth.  This proverb seems to have been added to suggest that what was said in verse 16 is not always true.

Knut Martin Heim: The aggressive, loud-mouthed assertions of leaders will always find a lot of followers among fools. The proverb encourages Qoheleth’s hearers to resist the temptation and to be wise instead.

Churck Swindoll: Some people are selling their souls to a secular therapist.  They are listening more to the well-educated psychologist than they have ever listened to the Lord or paid attention to His Word.  And as they take their cues from their counselor, they are being seduced by today’s psychology.

[cf. yesterday’s conference: Equipping the saints for ministry of counseling]

What did people learn yesterday about the limitations of man’s wisdom and the sufficiency of God’s wisdom in the area of counseling?

– People today put their faith in drugs

– People today don’t think the Bible is sufficient to deal with major behavior issues; in fact only the Bible can get beyond the visible presenting issues to the core root issues that must be addressed

Derek Kidner: In the pattern of the 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 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.

Walter Kaiser: Wisdom is not always heeded (9:16b). Only in emergencies can the quiet words of wisdom be heard. Therefore, men must have a certain mental disposition and spirit of receptivity if wisdom is to be heard (9:17). The clamor of demagogues and self-styled bosses is a striking contrast to words of quiet instruction delivered by wise men of God.  “Wisdom is power,” to restate an old proverb, but one sinner (or ruler) who in his folly and self-willed obstinacy refuses to accept “wisdom” thereby destroys much good and many a kingdom, too (9:18).