11I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. 12Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.

13I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me: 14There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siegeworks against it. 15Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. 16So I said, "Wisdom is better than strength." But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded. 17The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools. 18Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.

Solomon has just exhorted us to find joy and contentment with what God has given us in life (see Eccl. 9:7–9). This exhortation to contentment is especially needed given what he has next to tell us: "I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all" (vs. 11). The swift, the strong, the wise, the learned, all would seem to have it made. But, alas, life is unpredictable. One might think that success and joy in life would depend on our abilities, but, as Solomon points out, even having great talent or ability is no guarantee of success. From man’s point of view, there is always an element of unpredictability: "Time and chance happen to them all."

"Time and chance", bad timing and the whims of chance, can mess up the best of plans. Given this, we would do well to learn not to trust in our own abilities, in our own wisdom, for we cannot, even at our best, conquer "time and chance". We would do well to put our trust in Him who is the Master of Providence, the Master of "time and chance". If we trust in God, we are no longer at the mercy of "time and chance", but at the mercy of God. We should say to God, with David: "My times are in Your hands" (Ps. 31:15). Paul tells us that, for His children, God manipulates the whims of "time and chance" for our favor: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose" (Rom. 8:28).

To put our trust in God is even more important when we realize that, not only the events of life, but the occasion of death is subject to the whims of "time and chance". Solomon continues: "Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them" (vs. 12). James teaches us not to forget the unpredictability of life: "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).

Solomon realizes that not only time and chance, but the fickleness of men can thwart the success of the talented. He recounts a story demonstrating this: "I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me: There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siegeworks against it. Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man" (vss. 13–15). This story is doubly ironic. First, we have a man "poor but wise" who, through his wisdom, outwits a "powerful king" and "saves the city by his wisdom". This is surprising in itself. And then, we have the result: "But nobody remembered that poor man." This is sad, but oh so true to life. We have all seen situations where the wrong people get credit for things, and where the right people go unrewarded. A lesson we must learn is that we must not count on men for accolades. "Learn to prepare for disappointment. Work for the best interests of your fellow-creatures; but not for their approbation or reward" [Bridges, 230]. Look to please God instead of men. Give to others, as Jesus prescribed, not for earthly reward but for treasures in heaven (see Matt. 6). Your Father, "who sees what is done in secret, will reward you" (Matt. 6:4).

Solomon ends this section with lessons he learned from this story: "So I said, ‘Wisdom is better than strength.’ But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded. The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good" (vss. 16–18). The first lesson Solomon learned was "wisdom is better than strength." The poor man’s wisdom outwitted the powerful king. However, this lesson is tempered by the next lesson: "But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded" (vs. 16). Though the poor man saved the city, his words are "no longer heeded", and indeed, even his past, proven wisdom is forgotten, because he is poor. Unfortunately, the rich and powerful are listened to and obeyed with little discernment; the poor are ignored without consideration. We must learn to discern based on truth and godliness, not based on worldly standing. Solomon expresses this: "The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools" (vs. 17).

The final lesson that Solomon draws from his story concerns the ability of sin to nullify wisdom: "Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good" (vs. 18). In the story, the "sin" lies in forgetting the poor man’s wisdom. Quite probably, credit for saving the city was given to another man, possibly the "ruler of fools". By not crediting the poor man for his wisdom, "much good" was destroyed, for the city forever lost the benefits of the poor man’s wisdom.

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