Winners and Wisdom
Passage: Ecclesiastes 9:11–10:15
Winners and Wisdom
September 14th, 2008
Way of Grace Church
I. To Be a Winner
What would you do to be a winner?
Did you know that 6 of the 11,000 athletes who participated in the Beijing Games for were caught doping and removed from the games? Of course this was down considerably from the 26 violations in the last Olympics in Athens.
But even before these games began, the IOC caught 39 athletes using steroids and barred them from participating before the opening ceremonies on August 8th. In fact, the entire Bulgarian weightlifting team was disqualified because of doping.
It seems men and women like this will do anything to be winners. They will break the rules. They will risk their own health. They will run the risk of disqualification and shame. All in order to get what they believe is THE competitive edge.
What would you do to be a winner?
This morning we return, once again, to the book of Ecclesiastes. Over the course of this year we have been exploring this often neglected book of the Old Testament. And I think we've discovered that Ecclesiastes is an extremely relevant book; relevant because it describes one man's search for significance in a world that just doesn't seem to make sense.
Turn with me to Ecclesiastes 9:11.
II. The Passage: "But Time and Chance..." (9:11-10:15)
Listen to what the Teacher concludes as he, once again, reflects on this strange thing we call life. Chapter 9, verse 11:
11 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 those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. 12 For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.
A. An Evil Time (9:11b, 12; 10:8, 9)
The first thing I want you to see here is the dilemma the Teacher points to in verse 12. We, all of us, are "snared at an evil time". Like birds caught in a trap, or fish that are pulled up in a net, all of us are caught off guard by difficult and painful circumstances.
Notice how he puts it at the end of verse 11: "Time and chance happen to them all." What he's saying here is that inevitably, at some point, difficult situations will plague all of us. They will come unexpectedly. They won't seem to make sense. These are the kinds of circumstances that the world would describe as "bad luck".
Fish don't expect the "evil net" do they? They are just swimming along, not a care in the world, enjoying the scenery, when all of a sudden they find themselves and their buddies being pulled to the surface. They certainly don't expect it. It's just one of those instances of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Maybe some fish think, "Well, the ocean is so big, and I'm just another fish in the sea. The odds of me getting taken in a fisherman's net are pretty slim. I don't have anything to worry about."
Sometime we think that way, don't we? Accidents like that happen to other people, not me. Other people go through marital difficulties, not us. Rejection, bitterness, cancer, unemployment, doubt, bankruptcy, abandonment, hostility, carjacking...those probably aren't things I will have to do deal with.
But "time and chance happen to [us] all", says the Teacher. Drop down to chapter 10, verses 8 and 9. Listen to some of the examples the Teacher gives us here:
8 He who digs a pit will fall into it, and a serpent will bite him who breaks through a wall. 9 He who quarries stones is hurt by them, and he who splits logs is endangered by them.
You see, even in the normal course of your life, accidents happen. When all you're trying to do is your job, you can be hurt by the very things in which it seems you are in control. The pit you are digging can become a trap. The wall you're demolishing turns out to be a viper's nest. The stone you're quarrying drops on your foot. The wood you're chopping can fly off in a direction you didn't expect...right at your head.
I think all of us understand this. No matter how much we try to convince ourselves otherwise, I think we recognize that things like this will happen. We can't escape the fact that life is painful, that life is not "fair" in terms of our perspective and judgment.
So how do we respond to this reality of "time and chance"?
B. The Swift and the Strong (9:11a)
Well notice the viewpoint the Teacher confronts at the beginning of verse 11:
11 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 those with knowledge...
What the Teacher is doing here is confronting what we would call the "winning formula". The fastest person always wins the race. The strongest army always has victory. The wise man is always well fed. Smart people always have money.
And because we believe this is true, we often strive to be the fastest, the strongest, the wisest, and the smartest. We respond to the painful realities of the world by trying to control those realities.
We all want to be winners, don't we? We want to demonstrate to everyone that we are more in control of our life than they are. We want the trophy that says, "For achievement in outwitting, outlasting, and outplaying time and chance."
What would you do to be ‘winner'? What have you done? What are you doing?
Our house won't be broken into with this new alarm system. I won't get sick with this new vitamin supplement. My spouse and I won't fight with each other if we keep the romance alive. If I get to work five minutes early every day, and submit my reports a day before the deadline, I will never lose my job. If I get a little nip here and little tuck there, if I'm the prettiest or have the best physique, I won't be rejected. If I use these steroids, no one will be able to beat me.
But we all know that life doesn't always work that way. The runner can pull a hamstring. The strongest army can be crippled by internal strife. The wisest person can contract a deadly illness. The smartest kid in the class can drop out of school because his or her family situation falls apart.
That is life. "Time and chance happen to us all".
C. The Power of Wisdom (9:13-18; 10:1-7, 10-15)
So again, how do we respond? Well, first of all, we need to see that many of the actions we mentioned earlier (the alarm system, keeping the romance alive, being on time), those aren't bad things. But...they don't guarantee that we will not experience difficult times. We need to have the right perspective.
Look at where the Teacher goes in chapter 9, verse 13:
13 I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. 14 There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. 15 But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. 16 But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man's wisdom is despised and his words are not heard. 17 The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools. 18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.
Do you see what the Teacher is saying here? The battle does not always go to the strong does it? Victory is not always guaranteed to the one who has great siegeworks? No, as he says here, "Wisdom is better than weapons of war". It was the wisdom of one man, one poor man, that saved the city.
Can you imagine if there was some sort of Valleywide crisis and all of the best and brightest and most powerful people in the city gathered to figure things out. And just as they were about to give up because the situation seemed too desperate, can you imagine if a homeless man walked in, laid down his, "please help, god bless you" sign, and suggested a plan of action that ended up saving the city? Talk about unexpected. But that's the power of wisdom, as the Teacher makes clear here.
And down in chapter 10, listen to how he confirms this point. Going back to verse 8:
8 He who digs a pit will fall into it, and a serpent will bite him who breaks through a wall. 9 He who quarries stones is hurt by them, and he who splits logs is endangered by them. 10 If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed.ï»¿ 11 If the serpent bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage to the charmer.
You see, a chopping wood might still hurt you, but having enough wisdom to sharpen you axe can help your chances of success. It's not a guarantee, but it helps. If the snake charmer uses wisdom in handling the serpent, it just might, it might save him from being bit.
You see, we shouldn't seek a life unaffected by "time and chance", because we'll never find it. But instead, as the Teacher points out here, we should seek wisdom. Instead of trying to control away difficulties, wisdom enables us to respond rightly to the inevitable challenges of life.
But what is wisdom? It's a word we find throughout the Bible, but what does it mean?
Well, let me offer a definition:
Wisdom is the understanding and skill that leads one to choose well, and thus live well, in the face of life's challenges.
Wisdom is the ability to deal with life as it is, not wishing it was some other way.
If it is a given that life will be filled with unexpected and challenging circumstances, if the "evil net" is in some sense a guarantee, then shouldn't we be growing in our ability to respond to any and every situation in the right way?
The majority of chapter 10 deals with the superiority of wisdom and the stark difference between the wise man and the fool. Listen to some of what the Teacher tells us about the wise person and the fool:
10:1 Dead flies make the perfumer's ointment give off a stench; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor. 2 A wise man's heart inclines him to the right, but a fool's heart to the left. 3 Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense, and he says to everyone that he is a fool. 4 If the anger of the ruler rises against you [there's a challenging circumstance, an ‘evil net'], do not leave your place, for calmnessï»¿ will lay great offenses to rest...5 There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, as it were an error proceeding from the ruler: [here's the unexpected] 6 folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place. 7 I have seen slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves...12 The words of a wise man's mouth win him favor,ï»¿ but the lips of a fool consume him. 13 The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness, and the end of his talk is evil madness. 14 A fool multiplies words, though no man knows what is to be, and who can tell him what will be after him? 15 The toil of a fool wearies him, for he does not know the way to the city.
Very clearly, the Teacher wants to show us the foolishness of foolishness. He wants us to understand here that even though "time and chance happen to us all", the best way to respond to the difficulties of life is to respond with wisdom.
So here's the main question that arises from these verses: do you want to be a winner, or do want to be a wise man?
Contrary to common ideas, life is not about winning, is it? According to God's word, it's about walking in wisdom.
III. Losers and Wisdom
So, how do we walk in wisdom? How does one get wisdom? If we all recognize the reality of "time and chance", that life is not something we would label as "fair", then how do gain the wisdom to respond to these realities as we should?
The heart of wisdom in the Old Testament, in this Hebrew culture in which the Teacher lived, is expressed most clearly in the book just before Ecclesiastes, the book we call Proverbs. Proverbs is very clear about the value of wisdom:
13 Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding, 14 for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. 15 She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. (Proverbs 3:13-15)
But it's in chapter 9 of Proverbs that we discover the key to wisdom: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding." (v. 10)
That understanding that informs the skill that makes one wise, that understanding is based on a reverence for God; a holy respect for who God is.
And not only does this result in a respect for what God commands, so that we obey, but it also results in a respect for what God can do, so that we trust. This is why Proverbs tells us: Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding... (3:5)
The wisdom that we need is a wisdom grounded in faith. Yes, maybe the wisdom of the poor man had something to do with outwitting the attacking king. But maybe the poor man's wisdom was simply calling the city to trust in God's deliverance, something we see in many places throughout the Old Testament.
You see, true wisdom always brings us to the end of ourselves. It's not about what we know or what we can do. That's trying to be a ‘winner'. No, it's about what God knows and what God can do.
If the Teacher could only see what God would do hundreds and hundreds of years after his time; if he could only see what God would say about winners and wisdom.
List to what the Apostle Paul wrote in I Corinthians chapter 1:
26 Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things-and the things that are not-to nullify the things that are, [WHY?]29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God-that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord." (I Corinthians 1:26-31)
The wisdom that we need to respond to the difficulties is not simply a set of principles about words or money or work. The wisdom we need is Jesus Christ, "who has become for us wisdom from God".
And to gain that wisdom, we need to see that we are, not winners, but losers. "Wait a minute, did the pastor just call me a loser?" No, I don't know if you are a loser, but I wish you were. God wishes you were.
You see, to be a loser in light of what Paul has written here is to come to that acknowledgement that you are not the fastest or the strongest or the wisest or the smartest, that you're not even close, AND...and more importantly, the acknowledgement that even if you were, it wouldn't matter. What matters is who Jesus is, what Jesus has said, what Jesus has done, and what He can do, even now.
The wisdom Paul is talking about here is the wisdom of the cross; that wisdom that God used to expose that all of our best efforts are useless; that wisdom that God used to show that he alone would have the glory; that wisdom that God used to demonstrate "that time and chance" have to answer to a higher authority; to show us that He has a purpose in all things.
To gain wisdom, you must gain Christ, for as Paul says in another letter about Him, ...Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Colossians 2: 3)
The only way that we can truly know that wisdom that comes through faith, is for Jesus to be our "righteousness, holiness, and redemption" before God.
And when you place your faith in Jesus, and keep placing your faith in Him, when you recognize him as the only real winner, that's when we have the understanding and skill to choose well, and thus live well in the face of life's challenges.
Only when Jesus is our leader will we follow His example and turn the other cheek. Only when Jesus is our comfort will we not be stressed out in stressful times. Only when Jesus humbles us will we learn how to control our tongues. Only when Jesus is our treasure will we learn real contentment. Only when Jesus is our rock will we stand firm in the face of whatever "time and chance" bring our way.
Even this wisdom won't make us winners in the eyes of the world. Remember, the poor man who saved this city was not remembered. It even says his wisdom was despised. We can't be in it for our glory. This is definitely not the path to self-exaltation.
What would you do to be a winner? Well, hopefully you've seen that the more important question is, "What would you do to be a loser?"
And Scripture is clear about what it takes to be a loser. Jesus said, "For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it." (Mark 8:35)
James, the half-brother of Jesus told us this: If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. (James 1:5)
Ask God for wisdom, and you will find that the wisdom he gives always leads us back to Christ, the One who has become our wisdom from God.