Ecclesiastes 9
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
It was said by a famous man of the world, "Life is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel." The epigram is more sparkling than true; reflecting men in every age have been oppressed by the solemnity of life's facts, and the insolubility of life's problems. Some men are roused to inquiry and are beset by perplexities when trouble and adversity befall themselves; and others experience doubts and distress at the contemplation of the broad and obvious facts of human life as it unfolds before their observation. Few men who both think and feel have escaped the probation of doubt; most have striven, and many have striven in vain, to vindicate eternal Providence, and justify the ways of God to men.

I. THE FACT THAT IN THIS EARTHLY STATE THERE IS AN ABSENCE OF COMPLETE RETRIBUTION. "All things come alike to all;" "There is one event unto all." The righteous, the good, and the wise do not seem to meet with more prosperity and greater happiness than the wicked and the foolish. The man who offers due religious observance, and who reveres his oath, is subject to misfortune and calamity equally with the negligent, the impious, the false swearer. No thunderbolt of vengeance smites the sinner, no miraculous protection is round about the upright and obedient. Nay, the righteous is sometimes cut off in the prime of his manhood; the sinner's days are sometimes lengthened, and he dies in a delusive peace.

II. THE DIFFICULTY, DOUBT, AND PERPLEXITY OCCASIONED BY THE OBSERVATION OF THIS FACT. The writer of Ecclesiastes laid to heart and explored the mysteries of Providence; and in this he was not peculiar. Every observant and thoughtful person is sometimes compelled to ask himself whether or not there is a meaning in the events of life, and, if there be a meaning, what it is. Can our reason reconcile these events, as a whole, with belief in the existence, in the government, of a God at once almighty and benevolent? Are there considerations which can pacify the perturbed breast? Beneath the laws of nature is there a Divine heart? or is man alone sensitive to the inequalities of human fate, to the moral contradictions which seem to thrust themselves upon the attention?

III. THE TRUE SOLUTION OF THESE DOUBTS TO BE FOUND IN THE CONVICTION THAT ALL ARE IN THE HAND OF GOD. It is to be observed that faith in God can do what the human understanding cannot effect. Men and their affairs are not in the hand of chance or in the hand of fate, but in the hand of God. And by God is meant not merely the supreme Power of the universe, but the personal Power which is characterized by the attributes Holy Scripture assigns to the Eternal. Wisdom, righteousness, and benevolence belong to God. And by benevolence we are not to understand an intention to secure the enjoyment of men, to ward off from them every pain, all weakness, want, and woe. The purpose of the Divine mind is far higher than this - even the promotion of men's spiritual well-being, the discipline of human character, and especially the perfecting of obedience and submission. Sorrow and disappointment may be, and in the case of the pious will be, the means of bringing men into harmony with the will and character of God himself. - T.

The teaching in this section of the book is very similar to that in Ecclesiastes 6:10-12. The Preacher lays stress upon the powerlessness and short-sightedness of man with regard to the future. A higher power controls all the events of human life, and fixes the conditions in which each individual is to live - conditions which powerfully affect his character and destiny. Such a thought has been to many a source of consolation and strength. "My times," said the psalmist, "are in thy hand" (Psalm 31:15). "Your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things," said Jesus (Matthew 6:32), when he counseled his disciples against undue anxiety for the future. But no such comfort is drawn by the Preacher from the consideration that "the righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God" (ver. 1). It suggests to him rather an iron destiny, a cage against the bars of which the soul may beat its wings in vain, than a gracious Providence. The loss of freedom implied in it afflicts him - the thought that not even the feelings and emotions of the heart are under man's control. They are excited by persons and things with whom or with which he is brought in contact. A slight change of circumstances would make his love hatred, and his hatred love; and these circumstances he cannot change or modify. Events of all kinds are before us, and God arranges what is to happen to us. "Whether it be love or hatred, man knoweth it not; all is before them" (ver. lb, Revised Version). "The river of life, along which his course lies, is wrapped in mist. Man's destiny is wholly dark, and is out of his own control. But it is not man's ignorance that cuts him to the heart; it is that the injustice of earthly tribunals seems to have its counterpart in g higher region. No goodness, no righteousness, will avail against the persistent injustice of the laws by which the world seems ruled. What a half-blasphemous indictment, what passionate recalcitration against the God whose fear is in his mouth, is embodied in the cold and calm despair of the words which follow in the next verse (ver. 2)!" (Bradley). He names five classes or' persons, embracing all the various types el righteousness and wickedness, and affirms that one event comes to them all, that no discrimination on the part of the Divine Ruler between them appears in their earthly lot. The first group is perhaps that of those whose conduct towards their neighbors is righteous or wicked; the second that of those who are pure or impure in heart; the third that of the religious and the irreligious; the fourth perhaps that of those whose characters are in all these relations good or evil; the fifth that of the profane swearer and the man who reverences the solemn oath (Isaiah 65:16). "There is no mark at all of a moral government in this world. The providence of God is as indiscriminating as the falling tree, or the hungry tiger, or the desolating famine. If the fittest survive for a time, that fitness has nothing in common with goodness or righteousness." And one of the evil consequences of this state of matters is, as already referred to in Ecclesiastes 8:11, that those evilly disposed are subject to less restraint than they would be if Divine Providence in all cases meted out reward and punishment immediately to the righteous and the wicked. "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" (ver. 3). The gloomy thoughts concerning death and the world beyond it which filled his mind, made the "one event" that comes to all seem all the more unjust. For some, doubtless, it is a deliverance from misery, but to others it is an escape from merited punishment. Even life with all its inequalities and wrongs is better than death, and yet the righteous are swept away from the earth indiscriminately with the wicked.

"Streams will not turn aside
The just man not to entomb,
Nor lightnings go aside
To give his virtues room;
Nor is that wind less rough
which blows a good man's barge." That a strong faith in Divine Providence in spite of all outward appearances, and a firm grasp of the truth of immortality, were denied to the Preacher, need not surprise us, when we remember that the confidence we have in God's fatherly love, and in the eternal happiness of those who are faithful to him, is derived from the teaching of Christ, and his triumphant resurrection from the dead. The Preacher had not the consolations which the gospel affords us. To him the world beyond the grave was dreary and uncertain. He was one of those "who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage" (Hebrews 2:15). The meanest form of life was superior to the condition of even the noblest who had passed within the grim portals of the grave. The living dog, loathed and despised, feeding on the refuse of the streets, was better than the dead lion (ver. 4). Hope survives while life remains, even though it may be illusive; but with death all possible amelioration of one's lot is cut off. The bitterness of the thought is displayed in the touch of sarcasm which marks his words. "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" (ver. 5). The very consciousness of the coming doom gives a distinction to the living which is denied to the dead. The very memory of those who have passed away soon perishes. Others take their place, and carry on the business of the world. A new generation springs up, with interests and concerns and passions with which the dead have nothing to do. The strongest passions of love, hatred, and envy are quenched by the cold hand of death (ver. 6), and those who may in life have been bosom friends, or mortal enemies, or jealous rivals, lie side by side in the grave, in silence and oblivion. Nothing that is done in the earth concerns them any more (cf. Isaiah 38:9-20). The view here given us of the state of the dead is gloomy in the extreme. The darkness is more intense and palpable than that with which the same subject is invested in the Book of Job, and even in some of the psalms. But we must remember that though the world beyond the grave is represented by him as dim and shadowy, he affirms at the same time that "God will bring every secret thing into judgment" in "his own time and season." "Consequently, the dead, even though regarded by him as existing in a semi-conscious state in Hades, are supposed to be still in existence, and destined at some future period to be awakened out of this dreary slumber, and. rewarded according to the merit or demerit of their actions on earth. He does not, it is true, speak of this awakening out of sleep, still less does he allude to the resurrection of the body. His book is mainly occupied with the search after man's highest good on earth, and it is only incidentally that he refers at all to the state of the dead' (Wright). The doctrine of a future judgment, in which every man will appear and receive the reward or punishment due to him, is repeatedly dwelt upon by our author; and. this of itself implies a conscious existence after death in the case of all. So far, however, as this life is concerned, the grave puts a period to all activity, extinguishes all the passions which animate the children of men. They pass into another state of existence, and. have no further concern with that which is done here on earth. - J.W.

No thoughtful reader can take these remarks upon the living and the dead as complete and satisfactory in themselves. The writer of this book, as we know from other passages, never intended them so to be taken. They are singularly partial; yet when they are seen to be so, they are also singularly just. Just one aspect of life and of mortality is here presented, and it is an aspect which a wise and reflecting reader will see to be of great importance. Life is a fragment, it is an opportunity, it is a probation. Death is an end, that is, an end of this brief existence, and of what especially belongs to it. If we thought of life and death only under these aspects, we should err; but we should err if we neglected to take these aspects into consideration.


1. They part with opportunities of knowledge which they enjoyed on earth.

2. They part with passions which they experienced whilst in the bodily life.

3. They part with possessions which they acquired in this world.

4. They are soon forgotten; for those who remember them themselves depart, and a faint memory or utter forgetfulness must follow. Death is a great change, and they who undergo it leave much behind, even though they may gain immeasurably more than they lose.


1. They have knowledge. This is doubtless very limited, but it is very precious. Compared with the knowledge which awaits the Christian in the future state, that which is within our reach now and here is as what is seen dimly in a mirror. Yet how can men be too grateful for the faculty in virtue of which they can acquaint themselves with truth of the highest importance and value? Knowledge of self, and knowledge of the great Author of our being and salvation, is within our reach. We know the limitation of our period of earthly education and probation; we know the means by which that period may be made the occasion of our spiritual good.

2. With all the living there is hope. Time is before them with its golden opportunities; eternity, time's harvest, is before them with all its priceless recompense. Even if the past has been neglected or abused, there is the possibility that the future may be turned to good account. For the dead we know that this earthly life has nothing in store. But who can limit the possibilities which stretch before the living, the progress which may be made, the blessing that may be won?

APPLICATION. It is well to begin with the view of life and death which is presented in this passage; but it would not be well to pause here. It is true that there is loss in death; but the Christian does not forget the assertion of the apostle that "to die is gain." And whilst there are privileges and prerogatives special to this earthly life, still it is to the disciple of Christ only the introduction and preparation for a life which is life indeed - life glorious, imperishable, and Divine. - T.

In a world like ours, where appearance goes so far and counts for so much, there is much in form. There is much in machinery, in organization; when this is perfected, power is powerful indeed. There is much in original capacity - in that invisible, immeasurable germ out of which may grow great things in the future. But it is hardly too much to say that everything is m life. Where that is absent, nothing of any kind will avail; where that is present, all things are possible. It is better to have life even in the humblest form than to have the most perfect apparatus or the most exquisite form without it. A living dog, with its power of motion and enjoyment, is better than a dead lion, for which there is nothing but unconsciousness and corruption. Of the many illustrations of this principle, we may take the following: -

I. AN EARNEST STUDENT IS BETTER THAN A DEAD WEIGHT OF LEARNING. A man whose mind is nothing more than a storehouse of learning, who does not communicate anything to his fellows, who does not act upon them, who is no source of wisdom or of worth, is of very little account indeed; he has not what he has (see Matthew 25:29). But the earnest student, though he be but a youth or even a child, who is bent on acquiring in order that he may impart, in whom are the living springs of an honorable aspiration, is a great treasure, from whom society may look for many things.

II. AN AWAKENED CONSCIENCE IS BETTER THAN UNCONSECRATED GENIUS. Unconsecrated power may be enlisted on the side of peace and virtue. But it is a mere accident if it be so. It is quite as likely that it will be devoted to strife, and will espouse the cause of moral wrong; the history of our race has had too many painful proofs of this likelihood. But where there is an awakened conscience, and, consequently, a devotion to duty, there is ensured the faithful service of God, and an endeavor, more or less successful, to do good to the world.

III. ONE LIVING SOUL IS BETTER THAN A STAGNANT CHURCH. A Christian Church may be formed after the apostolic model, and its constitution may be irreproachably scriptural, but it may fall into spiritual apathy, and care for nothing but its own edification. A single human soul, with an ear sensitive to "the still sad music of humanity," with a heart to feel the weight of "the burden of the Lord," with courage to attempt great things for Christ and for men, with the faith that "removes mountains," may be of far more value to the world than such an apathetic and inactive Church. Similarly, we may say that -


Optimists and pessimists are both wrong, for they both proceed upon the radically false principle that life is to be valued according to the preponderance of pleasure over pain; the optimist asserting and the pessimist denying such preponderance. It is a base theory of life which represents it as to be prized as an opportunity of enjoyment. And the hedonism which is common to optimist and to pessimist is the delusive basis upon which their visionary fabrics are reared. Pleasure is neither the proper standard nor the proper motive of right conduct. Yet, as the text points out, enjoyment is a real factor in human life, not to be depreciated and despised, though not to be exaggerated and overvalued.

I. ENJOYMENT IS A DIVINELY APPOINTED ELEMENT IN OUR HUMAN EXISTENCE. Man's bodily and mental constitution, taken in connection with the circumstances of the human lot, are a sufficient proof of this. We drink by turns the sweet and the bitter cup; and the one is as real as the other, although individuals partake of the two in different proportions.

II. MANY PROVISIONS ARE MADE FOR HUMAN ENJOYMENT. Several are alluded to in this passage, more especially

(1) the satisfaction of natural appetite;

(2) the pleasures of society and festivity,

(3) the happiness of the married state, when the Divine idea concerning it is realized. These are doubtless mentioned as specimens of the whole.

III. THE RELATION OF ENJOYMENT TO LABOR. The Preacher clearly saw that those who toil are those who enjoy. It is by work that most men must win the means of bodily and physical enjoyment; and the very labor becomes a means of blessing, and sweetens the daily meals. Nay, "the labor we delight in physics pain." The primeval curse was by God's mercy transformed into a blessing.


1. Pain, suffering, and distress are as real as happiness, and must come, sooner or later, to all whose life is prolonged.

2. Neither pleasure nor pain is of value apart from the moral discipline both may aid in promoting, apart from the moral progress, the moral aim, towards which both may lead.

3. It is, therefore, the part of the wise to use the good things of this life as not abusing them; to be ready to part with them at the call of Heaven, and to turn them to golden profit, so that occasion may never arise to remember them with regret and remorse. - T.

No one who is at all familiar with the Preacher's thoughts can be surprised with the advice here given, following so closely as it does upon the gloomy reflections on death to which he has just given expression. He for the sixth time urges upon his hearers or readers the practical wisdom of enjoying the present, of cheerfully accepting the boons which God puts within our reach, and the mere thought that he is the Giver, will of itself rebuke all vicious indulgence. He permits enjoyment; nay, it is by his appointment that the means for it exist. "Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and. drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works" (ver. 7). That is, God approves of these works - a cheerful, thankful enjoyment of food and drink. The white garment symbolical of a glad heart, the perfume sprinkled upon the head, are not to be slighted as frivolous or as inappropriate for those who are so soon to pass from life unto death (ver. 8). Asceticism, self-imposed scruples, halfhearted participations in the good things that lawfully fall to us, mean loss of the present, and are not in themselves a preparation for the future. The ascetic may have his heart set upon the very pleasures he denies himself, may value them more highly, than he who takes them as they come, and exhausts them of all the satisfaction they contain. The happiness, too, which marriage yields is commended by him. He speaks elsewhere of the wretchedness and shame into which sensuality leads, and of the hateful types of womanhood with which it brings the sensualist into contact (Ecclesiastes 2:8; Ecclesiastes 7:26); but here he alludes to the cairn peacefulness of a happy home, which, though it cannot remove the sense of the vanity and transitoriness of life, at least makes it endurable (Plumptre). A happy life, a useful life, a life filled by a wholesome activity, may be lived by all or by most, and the fact that the end is near, the grave in which there is neither "work, nor device, nor wisdom," should be a stimulus to such activity (ver. 10). Honest, earnest labor, together with whatever enjoyments God's providence brings within our reach, and not an indifference to all sublunary concerns because of their transitoriness, is asserted to be our bounden duty. Had he recommended mere sensuous indulgence, we should turn from him contemptuously. Had he recommended an ascetic severity, we might have felt that only some could follow his advice. But as it is, his ideal is within the reach of us all, and is worthy of us all. And those who speak censoriously of the conclusion he reaches and expresses in these words, would find it a very hard task to frame a higher ideal of life. Zealous performance of practical duties, a reasonable and whole-hearted enjoyment of all innocent pleasures, and mindfulness of judgment to come, are commended to us by the Preacher, and only a stupid fanatic could object to the counsel he gives. - J.W.

The prospect of death may add a certain zest to life's enjoyments, but we are reminded in this passage that it is just and wise to allow it to influence the performance of life's practical duties.

I. RELIGION HAS REGARD TO MAN'S PRACTICAL NATURE. The hand is the instrument of work, and is accordingly used as the symbol of our active nature. What we do is of supreme importance, both by reason of its cause and origin in our character, and by reason of its effect upon ourselves and upon the world. Religion involves contemplation and emotion, and expresses itself in prayer and praise; but without action all is in vain.

II. RELIGION FURNISHES THE LAW TO MAN'S PRACTICAL NATURE. We are expected to put up the prayer, "What wilt thou have me to do?" in response to this prayer, precept and admonition are given; and so the "hand findeth" its work.

1. True religion prescribes the quality of our work - that actions should be just and wise, kind and compassionate.

2. And the measure of our work. "With thy might" is the Divine law. This is opposed to languor, indolence, depression, weariness. He who considers the diligence and assiduity with which the powers of evil are ever working in human society will understand the importance of this urgent admonition.


1. There is the very general motive suggested in the context, that what is to be done for the world's good must be done during this present brief and fleeting life. There is doubtless service of such a nature that, if it be not done here and now, can never be rendered at all.

2. Christianity presents a motive of preeminent power in the example of the Lord Jesus Christ, who came to work the work of him who sent him, who went about doing good, who found it his food to do his Father's will, whose aim it was to finish the work given him to do.

3. Christianity enforces this motive by one deeper still; the Christian is inspired with the desire to live unto the Lord who lived and died for him. Grateful love, enkindled by the Divine sacrifice, expresses itself by consecrated zeal.

APPLICATION. Let the hand first be stretched out that it may grasp the hand of the Savior, God; and then let it be employed in the service of him who proves himself first the Deliverer, and then the Lord and Helper of all those who seek him. - T.

The reflections contained in these verses are not peculiar to the religious. No observer of human life can fail to observe how constantly all human calculations are falsified and all human hopes disappointed. And the language of the Preacher has naturally become proverbial, and is upon the lips even of those for whom it has no spiritual significance or suggestion. Yet it is the devout and pious mind which turns such reflections to profitable uses.

I. HUMAN EXPECTATION. It is natural to look for the success and prosperity of those who are highly endowed, and who have employed and developed their native gifts. Life is a race, and we expect the swift to obtain the prize; it is a battle, and we look for victory to the strong. We think of wealth and prosperity as the guerdon due to skill and prudence; we can hardly do otherwise. When the seed is sown, we anticipate the harvest. There are qualities adapted to secure success, and observation shows us that our expectations are justified in very many cases, though not in all. When we behold a young man begin life with every advantage of health, ability, fortune, and social recommendations, we forecast for such a one a career of advancement and a position of distinction and eminence. Yet how often does such an expectation prove vain!

II. HUMAN DISAPPOINTMENT. Human endeavor is crossed and human hope is crushed. The swift runner drops upon the course, and the bold warrior is smitten upon the battle-field. As the fishes are caught in the net, and the birds in the snare, so are the young, the ardent, the gifted, and the brave cut short in the career of buoyant effort and brilliant hope. All our projects may prove futile, and all our predictions may be falsified. The ways of Providence are inscrutable to our vision. We are helpless in the hands of God, whose thoughts are not as our thoughts. "Man also knoweth not his time." Attention is called to the suddenness with which our aims may be frustrated, our anticipations clouded, and our efforts defeated. And the observation of every experienced mind confirms the warning of the text. It is often when the sun is brightest that the cloud sweeps across its disc, when the sea is calmest that the storm arises in which the barque is foundered.


1. They rebuke human pride and self-confidence. It is natural for the young, the vigorous, the prosperous, to glory in their gifts, and to indulge bright hopes of the future, based upon their consciousness of power. Yet we have this lesson which the strong and fortunate will do well to lay to heart, "Let not the strong man glory in his strength," etc.

2. They check worldliness of spirit. We are all prone to attach importance to what is seen and temporal, and to allow our heart's affections to entwine around what is fair and bright, winsome and hopeful. God would teach us the supreme importance of those qualities which are imparted by his own blessed Spirit, and which endure unto everlasting life.

3. They lead the soul to seek a higher and more enduring satisfaction than earthly prosperity can impart. When riches take to themselves wings and fly away, this may enhance the value of the true, the unsearchable riches. When a fair, bright youth is plucked like a rosebud from the stem, and beauty withers, this may lead our thoughts and our hearts' desires away from this transitory scene to that region into which sorrow and death can never enter, and where God wipes away every tear. - T.

There is great force in the Preacher's words, demanding present diligence and energy in view of future silence and inaction. It may be well to consider -

I. THE TRUTH LEFT UNSTATED. There is no work in the grave; but what is there beyond it? We who have sat at the feet of Jesus Christ know well that the hour is coming in which all who are in their graves shall hear his voice, etc. (John 5:28, 29). The rest which remaineth for the people of God is not the rest of unconsciousness or repose, but of untiring activity; of knowledge that will be far removed from the dim visions of the present (see 1 Corinthians 13:12); of wisdom far surpassing the sagacity to which we now attain. In that heavenly country we hope to address ourselves to nobler tasks, to work with enlarged and liberated faculties, to accomplish far greater things, to be "ministers of his that do his pleasure" in ways and spheres that are far beyond us now. But what we have first to face, and have all to face, is -

II. AS ON-COMING EXPERIENCE. "The grave, whither thou goest." Our life is, as we say, a journey from the cradle to the grave. Death is a goal which:

1. Is absolutely inevitable. We may elude many evils, but that we must all encounter.

2. We may reach soon and suddenly. It may be the very next turn of the road which will bring us to it. No man can tell what mortal blow may not be struck on the morrow, what fatal disease may not discover itself before the year is out.

3. Will certainly appear before we are expecting it. So swiftly does our life pass - so far as our consciousness is concerned - with all its pressure of business and all its growing and gathering excitements, and so pertinacious is our belief that, however it may be with others, we ourselves have some life left in us still, and some work to do yet, that when death comes to us it will surprise us. What, then, is -

III. THE CONCLUSION OF THE WISE. It is this: To do heartily and well all that lies within our power. The Master himself felt this (John 9:4). He knew that there was glorious "work" for him in the long future, even as there had been for his Father in the long past (John 5:17). But he knew also that between the hour of that utterance and the hour of his death on the cross there was that work to be done which could only be done then and there. So he girded himself to do all that had to be done, and to bear all that had to be borne, in that short and solemn interval. We should feel and act likewise. We look for a very blessed and noble sphere of heavenly activity; but between this present and that future there is work to be done which is now within our compass, but will soon be without it. There is:

1. Good work to be done in the direction of self-culture, of gaining dominion over self, in casting out evil from our own soul and our own life.

2. Good service to be rendered to our kindred, to our friends, to our neighbors, whom we can touch and bless now but who will soon pass beyond our reach.

3. A good contribution, real and valuable, if not prominent, towards the establishment of the kingdom of Jesus Christ upon the earth. All, therefore, that our "hand findeth to do" because our heart is willing to do it, let us do with our might, lest we leave undone that which no future time and no other sphere will give us the opportunity to attempt. - C.

We shall find our way to the true lessons of this passage if we consider -

I. THE RULE UNDER GOD'S RIGHTEOUS GOVERNMENT. The Preacher either did not intend his words to be taken as expressing the general rule prevailing everywhere, or else he wrote these words in one of those depressed and doubtful moods which are frequently reflected in his treatise. Certainly the rule, under the wise and righteous government of God, is that the man who labors hard and patiently' to win his goal succeeds in gaining it. It is right that he should. It is right that the race should be to the swift, for swiftness is the result of patient practice and of temperate behavior. It is right that the battle should be to the strong, for strength is the consequence of discipline and virtue. It is right that bread and riches and the favor of the strong should fall to wisdom and to skill. And so, in truth, they do where the natural order of things is not positively subverted by the folly and the guilt of men, it is the case that human industry, resting on human virtue as its base, conducts to competence, to honor, to success. It does, indeed, happen that the crown is placed on the brow of roguery and violence; yet is it not the less true that wisdom and integrity constitute the well-worn and open road to present and temporal well-being.

II. THE OBVIOUS AND SERIOUS EXCEPTION. No doubt it is frequently found that "the race is not to the swift," etc. No doubt piety, purity, and fidelity are often left behind, and do not win the battle in the world's campaign. This is due to one of two Very different and, indeed, opposite causes. It may be due to:

1. Man's interfering wrong. The human oppressor comes down upon the industrious and the frugal citizen, and sweeps off the fruit of his toil and patience. The scheming intriguer steps in, and carries off the prize which is due to the laborious and persevering worker. The seducer lays his nets and ensnares his victim. There is, indeed, a lamentable frequency in human history with which the good and true, the wise and faithful, fall short of the honorable end they seek.

2. God's intervening wisdom. It may often happen that God sees that human strength or wisdom has outlived its modesty, its beauty, and its worth, and that it needs to be checked and broken. So he sends defeat where victory has been assured, poverty where wealth has been confidently reckoned upon, discomfiture and rejection where men have been holding out their hand for favor and reward. What, then, are -


1. Do not count too confidently on outward good. Work for it faithfully, hope for it with a well-moderated expectation, but do not set your heart upon it as an indispensable blessing. Be prepared to do without it. Have those inner, deeper, diviner resources which will fill the heart with grace and the life with an admirable contentment, even if the goat is not gained and the prize is not secured. Be supplied with those treasures which the thief cannot steal, and which will leave the soul rich though the bank be broken and the purse be emptied.

2. Guard carefully against the worst evils. Be so fortified with Divine truth and sacred principles within, and secure so much of God's favor and protection from above, that no snares of sin will be able to mislead and to betray - that the feet will never be found entangled in the nets of the enemy.

3. Anticipate the Divine discipline. Live in such conscious and in such acknowledged dependence upon God for every stroke that is struck, for all strength and wisdom that are gained, for all bounties and all honors that are reaped, that there will be no need for the intervening hand of heaven to break your schemes or to remove your treasures. - C.

In the preceding passage our author has exhorted the timid and slothful to bestir themselves and put forth all their powers, since death is ever at hand, and when it comes a period will be put to all endeavors; the wisdom that guides, the hand that executes, will be silent and still in the grave. He now exhorts the wise and strong not to be too confident about success in life, to be prepared for possible failure and disappointment. So full and varied is his experience of life that he has useful counsels for all classes of men. Some need the spur and others the curb. Some would, from timidity hang back and lose the chances of usefulness which life gives; others are so self-confident and sanguine that they need to be warned of the dangers and difficulties which their wisdom and skill may not succeed in overcoming. Plans may be skillfully constructed and every effort made to carry them into effect, but some unforeseen cause may defeat them, some circumstance which could not have been provided against, may bring about failure. The Preacher records the observations he had made of instances of failure to secure success in life, and gives an explanation. of how it is that the strenuous efforts of men are so often baffled.

I. THE PHENOMENA OBSERVED. (Ver. 11.) Five instances of failure are enumerated: the swift defeated in the race, the strong in battle, the wise unable to make a livelihood, the prudent remaining in poverty, the gifted in obscurity. In none of the cases is the fault to be traced to the want of faculties or abilities of the kind needed to secure the end in view, or to a half-hearted use of them. The runner endowed with swiftness might reasonably be expected to be first in at the goal, the strong to be victorious in fight, the wise and prudent to be successful in acquiring and amassing riches, the clever to attain to reputation and influence. It is taken for granted, too, that there is no omission of effort; for if there were, the cause of failure would easily be discovered. But the phenomena being noted as extraordinary and perplexing, we are to understand that in none of the cases observed is there anything of the kind. And it is implied that while those who fulfill all the conditions of success sometimes fail, those who do not sometimes succeed. The phenomena referred to are familiar to us all. We have known many who have begun life with the fairest promise, and who have apparently, without any fault of their own, failed to make their mark. The impression they have made upon us has convinced us that they have ability enough to win the prizes in life; but somehow or other they fail, and remain in obscurity. And, at the same time, others whose abilities are in our opinion of a commonplace order come to the front, and succeed in gaining and keeping a foremost place.

II. THE EXPLANATION OF THE MATTER. (Ver. 11b.) "Time and chance happeneth to them all." There need to be favorable circumstances as well as the possession and use of the requisite faculties, if success is to be won. The time must be propitious, and give opportunities for the exercise of gifts and abilities. "There are favorable and unfavorable times in which men's lot may be cast; and such times, too, may occur alternately in the experience of the same individual. A man of very inferior talent, should he fall on a favorable time, may succeed with comparative ease; whereas, in a time that is not propitious, abilities of the first order cannot preserve their possessor from failure and disappointment. And even the same period may be advantageous to one description of business, and miserably the reverse to another; and it may thus be productive of prosperity to men who prosecute the former, and of loss and ruin to those engaged in the Latter; although the superiority in knowledge, capacity, and prudence may be all, and even to a great degree, on the losing side" (Wardlaw). At first sight it might seem as if the explanation given of the reason why the race is not always to the swift, or the battle to the strong, were based on a denial of the Divine providence, and unworthy of a place in the Word of God. But this opinion is considerably modified, if not contradicted, if we find a reference, as we may fairly do, in the word "time" to the statements in Ecclesiastes 3., that there are" times and seasons," for all things are appointed by God himself. And so far from the conclusion here announced by our author being a solitary utterance, out of harmony with the general teaching of Scripture, we may find many parallels to it; e.g. "The Lord sayeth not with sword and spear: for the battle is the Lord's, and he will give you into our hands" (1 Samuel 17:47). "Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the Name of the Lord our God" (Psalm 20:7). "There is no king saved by the multitude of an host: a mighty man is not delivered by much strength" (Psalm 33:16). Probably the unfavorable impression of which I have spoken arises from the ideas suggested by the word "chance" in our English Version, which does not convey exactly the meaning of the Hebrew pega. It is a word only found twice in Scripture, here and in 1 Kings 5:4, and means a stroke. The general idea is that of adversity or disappointment inflicted by a higher power, and not merely that of something accidental or fortuitous interfering with human plans. "Chance," therefore, must here refer to the great variety of circumstances over which we have no control, but by which our schemes and endeavors are affected, which may take away success from the deserving, and in all cases render it extremely difficult to calculate beforehand the probabilities of success in an undertaking. The final result, whatever we may do is conditioned by God. Though our author does not here use these terms, yet we cannot doubt that they express his meaning. He does not say that life is a lottery, in which the swift and the slow, the strong and the weak, the wise and the simple, the industrious and the lazy, have equal chances of drawing prizes. He knew, as we all know, that success is won in most cases by those who are best qualified in ability and character for securing it; that the race is generally to the swift, and the battle to the strong. It is the exception to the rule that excites his astonishment, and leads him to the conclusion that mere human skill and power are not sufficient of themselves to carry the day. Failure and disappointment may at any moment and in any case overtake man, and these from causes which no wisdom could have foreseen or exertion have averted. Such a consideration is calculated to humble human pride, and create in the heart feelings of reverent submission to the great Disposer of events. "So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy" (Romans 9:16). This thought of the limitation of man in his efforts, in spite of all his gifts and abilities, is expressed again with still greater emphasis in ver. 12. The time when life must close is a secret hidden from each of us, and we may be arrested in the mid-course of our endeavors just when our labors are about to be crowned with success. It may come upon us so unexpectedly as to take us as fishes are taken in a net or birds in a snare. This may be the event that snatches the prize from the runner, the victory from the strong (2 Chronicles 18:33, 34). The arrow shot at random may strike down the brave soldier who has successfully borne the brunt of battle, and lay his pride in the dust. To those whose whole interests are centered in the business and pleasures of the world, the sudden summons of death comes in an evil time (Luke 12:19, 20); but those who are wise are not taken by surprise - "they understand and consider their latter end." - J.W.

It has been remarked that, whilst the leading idea of religion in the earliest stage of Israel's history was the Law, this idea took at a later period the form of wisdom. It is not well to discriminate too carefully between that wisdom which is shown in great works and that which is synonymous with piety. All light is from God, and there is no holier prayer than that in his light we may see light. It is a commonplace remark that men may be clever and yet not good; but every reflecting mind discovers in a character so described a lack of harmony. The philosopher, the sage, the leader in learning or science, should, beyond all men, be religious. "An undevout astronomer is mad." No more melancholy and pitiable spectacle is to be seen on earth than the able man whose self-confidence and vanity have led him into atheism. In considering the case of the truly wise man, it is well to regard him as displaying wisdom not only upon the lower but upon the higher plane.

I. WISDOM MAY BE ASSOCIATED WITH LOWLY STATION. Solomon was an example of an illustrious and splendid king who was famed for wisdom. But the instance of the text is striking; poverty and obscurity are not necessarily inconsistent with unusual insight, ability, and skill.

II. WISDOM MAY ACCOMPLISH GREAT WORKS WITH SMALL MEANS. A mighty king with a numerous and formidable army besieges a small city. How shall the besieged offer resistance to the foe? The inhabitants are few, feeble, ill-armed, half-starved; and their case seems hopeless. But a citizen hitherto unknown, with no apparent resources, arises to lead the dispirited and helpless defenders. Whether by some marvelous device, or by the magnetic power of his presence and spirit, he accomplishes a task which seemed impossible - vanquishes the besiegers and raises the siege. Such things have been, and they are a rebuke to our worldly calculations, and an inspiration to courage and to faith.

III. WISDOM MAY NEVERTHELESS IN PUBLIC BE OVERLOOKED AND DESPISED. "No man remembered that same poor man." How often does it happen that the real originator, the prime mover, gains no credit for the enterprise which he conceived, and for whose success he prepared the way; whilst praise is given to some person of social or political eminence who joined the movement when its success was assured! It is "the way of the world."

IV. YET WISDOM, UNHONORED IN PUBLIC, MAY BE ACKNOWLEDGED IN SECRET AND IN QUIETNESS. Those who look below the surface and are not dazzled by external splendor, those who listen, not merely to the earthquake, the thunder, and the tempest, but to the "still, small voice," discover the truly wise, and, in their heart of hearts, render to them sincere honor. Much more he who seeth in secret recognizes the services of his lowly, unnoticed servants who use their gifts for his glory, and work in obscurity to promote his kingdom, by whose toil and prayer cities are sanctified and saved.

V. THUS WISDOM IS SEEN TO BE THE BEST OF ALL POSSESSIONS AND QUALITIES. There is greatness which consists in outward splendor, and this may awe the vulgar, may dazzle the imagination of the unthinking. But in the sight of God and of just men, true greatness is that of the spirit; and the truly wise shine with a luster which poverty and obscurity cannot hide, and which the lapse of ages cannot dim. - T.

The picture which is here drawn is both picture and parable; it portrays a constantly recurring scene in human history. It speaks to us of -

I. THE RANGE OF WISDOM. Wisdom is a word that covers many things; its import varies much. It includes:

1. Knowledge; familiarity with the objects and the laws of nature, and with the ways and the history of mankind.

2. Keenness of intellect; that quickness of perception and subtlety of understanding which sees through the devices of other men, and keeps a watchful eye upon all that is passing, always ready to take advantage of another's mistake.

3. Sagacity; that nobler quality which forecasts the future; which weighs well many considerations of various kinds; which baffles the designs of the wicked; which defeats the machinations and the measures of the strong (vers. 14, 15); which is worth far more than much enginery (ver. 18); which builds up great institutions; which goes forth on hazardous and yet admirable enterprises.

4. Wisdom itself; that which is more properly considered and called such, viz. the discernment of the true end, with the adoption of the best means of attaining it; and this applied not merely to the particulars of human life, but to human life itself; the determination to seek that good thing, as our true heritage, which is in harmony with the will of God, and to seek it in the divinely appointed way. To us who live in this Christian era, and to whom Jesus Christ is himself "the Wisdom of God," this is found in seeking and finding, in trusting and following, in loving and serving him.

II. ITS FAILURE TO BE APPRECIATED. "No man remembered that same poor man." Wisdom in each one of its particular spheres is valuable; in the larger and higher spheres it is of very great account, being far more effective than any quantity of mere material force or of worldly wealth; in the highest sphere of all it is simply invaluable. But it is liable to be disregarded, especially if it be found in the person of poverty and obscurity.

1. It is often forgotten, and thus overlooked (text).

2. It is either rejected or visited with contumely in the person of its author. "Is not this the carpenter's Son?" it is asked. "And they were offended in him," it is added. Many a man, wit h much learning in his head, much shrewdness in his speech, much weight in his counsel. much wisdom in his soul, walks, unrecognized and unhonored, along some very lowly path of life.


1. It is often heeded when mere noise and station are disregarded. "The words of the wise are listened to with more pleasure than the loud behests of a foolish ruler (ver. 17)" (Cox). And it is a satisfaction to the wise that they do often prevail in their quietness and their obscurity when the clamorous and the consequential are dismissed as they deserve to be.

2. The time will come when they who speak the truth will gain the ear of the world; there are generations to come, and we may leave our reputation to them, as many of the wisest and worthiest of our race have done.

3. To be useful is a better reward than to be applauded or to be enriched; how much better to have "delivered the city" than to have been honored by it!

4. Our record is on high. - C.

The truth of the aphorism, that "the battle is not to the strong... nor yet favor to men of skill" (ver. 11), is illustrated by the Preacher in a striking little story or apologue, taken doubtless from the history of' some campaign familiar to his readers. It represents in a vivid manner the power of wisdom, and also the ungrateful treatment which the possessor of it frequently receives from those who have found him a deliverer in time of danger. A little city, with few in it to defend it, is besieged by a great king. The place is surrounded by his army, and round about it great mounds are erected from which missiles are hurled into it. All hope seems to be gone; no material forces which the besieged can muster for their defense are at all adequate to repel the assailants. When suddenly some poor man, whose name was perhaps known to few in the city, delivers it by his wisdom. The great king and his army are compelled to retire baffled from before the walls of the city, which probably when they first beheld them moved them to scornful laughter by their apparent insignificance and weakness. The picture is not overdrawn; history affords many parallel instances. The defense of Syracuse against the Romans by Archimedes the mathematician (Livy, 24:34), of Londonderry against James II. by Walker, and in later times of Antwerp by Carnot (Alison, 'Europe,' 87.), show how inferior material is to moral force. This is the bright side of the picture. "Wisdom is better than strength" (ver. 16); "wisdom is better than weapons of war" (ver. 18). The dark side is that it is often rewarded by the basest ingratitude. It was the wisdom of a poor man that delivered the city in which he dwelt; but when the danger was past he sank again into obscurity. No one thought of him as he deserved to be thought of. The public attention was caught by some new figure, and the savior of the city remained as poor and unnoticed as he had been before the great crisis in which his wisdom had been of such great service. Had he been high-born and rich, his great services would have been acknowledged in some notable manner; but the meanness of his surroundings obscured his merit in the eyes of the thoughtless multitude. It was this vulgar failing which prompted some to despise wisdom itself incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, and to ask scornfully, "Is not this the carpenter?" (Mark 6:2, 3) Wisdom is unassuming, calm, and deliberate (cf. Isaiah 42:2; Matthew 12:19), yet fall of strength and resources, and the pity is that it should so often lose its reward, and the public attention be caught by the blustering cry of fools (ver. 17). It is, indeed, often a better defense than weapons of war; and therefore it is sad that it should sometimes be nullified by folly, that one perverse blunderer should sometimes be able through carelessness or passion to destroy all the defenses that wisdom has carefully erected. - J.W.

How much of destruction may flow from one single life may be seen if we look at the subject -

I. NEGATIVELY. We may judge of the magnitude of the evil by considering:

1. How one evil life may hinder the work of God; e.g. Achan, Sanballat, Herod, Nero. Who shall say how much of Christian influence has been arrested by one grossly inconsistent member of a Church, or by one arch-persecutor of the gospel of Christ?

2. How much a man may fail to do by refusing to spend his powers in the service of God. To a man with large means, great resources, brilliant capacities, almost anything is open in the direction of holy usefulness, of widespread and far-descending influence. All this is lost, and in a sense destroyed, by a selfish and guilty withholdment of it all from the service of God and man.

II. POSITIVELY. We may estimate the serious and lamentable mischief of an evil life if we think that a godless man may be injuring his neighbors:

1. By weakening or undermining their faith; causing them to lose their hold on Divine truth, and thus sinking into the miseries of doubt or into the darkness and despair of utter unbelief.

2. By undoing the integrity of the upright; leading them into the fatal morass of an immoral life.

3. By cooling, or even killing, the consecration of the zealous; causing them to slacken their speed or even to leave the field of noble service. One man, by his own evil example, by his words of folly and falsity, by his deeds of wrong, may enfeeble many minds, may despoil many hearts, may misguide many souls, may blight and darken many lives. - C.

The Pulpit Commentary, Electronic Database.
Copyright © 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2010 by Biblesoft, Inc.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Bible Hub
Ecclesiastes 8
Top of Page
Top of Page