Is There Any Hope?

Solomon revisits the observation of the seeming indifference in earthly consequence between wisdom and folly, wickedness and righteousness, piety and profaneness, industry and sloth – “I reflected on all this” (9:1). His emphasis is that if we are pure pragmatists, wanting only earthly advantage that comes from a course of action, then we might not be convinced to choose the high road—a path that sees the honor of God as the true end of all things—in any of these things, for the end of all seems to be equal. He also contemplates the seeming incongruity that a lifetime of character can be spoiled by one act of indiscretion, or the many acts of wisdom within a culture can be rendered invisible by the actions of one fool.


I. Chapter 9:1-6 –Solomon, having given himself to intense observation, has concluded that a mere man cannot discern God’s purpose in the single events, or any combination of them, that constitute the fabric of our lives “under the sun.” Obviously he would not say that should God reveal the meaning of an event, we still cannot know it, for he has revealed the meaning of the most incongruous event of history, the death of Christ. “He Himself bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sin, might live unto righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). Beyond the giving of meaning, however, in God’s gracious revelation, we do not know the end of any of the things that occur. But this quest for meaning in itself, though it fell short of Solomon’s hope, nevertheless yielded important fruit.One must not look to the nature of the things that happen to a person in this life as that which distinguishes between the righteous and the unrighteous, the loved and the hated. These events will have different effects on the mind and spirit of those whom God has distinguished by grace or reprobation, but in the present appearance of the events themselves, they appear the same in this life.

A. “But all this I laid to heart, examining it all’ – that is, this conclusion at least I have found, and it might be helpful for all to consider based on the massive collection of data concerning the multiplicity of conditions that happen to persons at all different levels of society, material means, mentality, and moral perception.

  1. The saints of God, “the righteous and the wise,” must not despair at the events of their lives, for “their deeds are in the hand of God.” Though observation shows that nothing about the events here could distinguish the righteous from the unrighteous, God intends completely different ends by them. “And we know that all things work together for good to those that love God and are the called according to his purpose. . . . In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:28, 37).
  2. One may not know if a person is loved or hated on the basis of a simplistic observation of the normal events of life. Neither suffering nor prosperity, calamity nor escape, victory nor loss, ease nor hardship, fullness nor want can be seen as an immediate measure of the relative goodness or badness, rightness or wrongness of the individuals that experience them.
  • Verse 2 – Solomon shows how difficult it is for a general statement of whether an event is for good or for ill, for the same event happens to those to whom promises of protection and covenant love are given at the same time that they happen to those upon whom the wrath of God is descending. How does one evaluate the moral impact of the destruction of over three thousand persons in the quick events of September 11, 2001? Some were involved in blasphemous thoughts or activities probably while others were praying or witnessing to a friend or encouraging a child on the phone. The same event happened to all of them. How do we say if an earthquake that destroys an entire city is for love or hate when thousands of people are swallowed up or crushed by falling rock? Some had been on the edge of quick judgment for weeks because of extended commitment to criminal and destructive action while others were law-abiding and compassionate and worshippers of the one true God through Jesus Christ—the same thing happened to both. “The same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and to him who does not sacrifice” (9:2). Even so the person whose word always is trustworthy and needs no oath to confirm his honesty is taken away with the one who is given to lying and feels that he must swear an oath to gain even mild consent to his word. Both of these are taken away in the same flood, or both are in the same train wreck or the same calamitous explosion in a chemical plant. A liar is swept away swiftly in the same event that ends the life of the honest man.
  • Verse 3 – Wouldn’t it be lovely if the good and the evil were delineated precisely from each other by a perfectly graded incline—or decline, if you prefer—so that every good action gained some well calibrated points of good things in life fit for the nature of the good and every evil thought or deed sent one down the decline into a measurable degree of suffering suited to the evil. In this life, however, that is not how it is; so we simply cannot judge one’s character and acceptability to God on the basis of how much pleasure or pain comes into their lives (the error of Job’s accusatory friends). That complexity makes Solomon exclaim, “This is an evil in all that is done under the sun that the same event happens to all.”
  • That this lesson is hard to learn is seen from the prophecy concerning our Lord Jesus when he bore our iniquities and suffered for our transgression and personally took a chastening that gave us peace, “We esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted.” “As for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?” (Isaiah 53:4b, 8b). His enemies ridiculed his confidence in the Father, “He trusted in God; let him deliver him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” (Matthew 27:43).
  • Verse 3b – The bottom line truth in all his observation, however, is that every person deserves calamity all the time, for the only fully righteous person who suffered as an evildoer was the Lord Jesus Christ. “The hearts of the children of man are full of evil.” Certainly this is uniformly true among those that are still dead in trespasses and sin and have not been raised from death to life in the new birth nor indwelt by the Spirit who is life. None gains any reward for intrinsic moral goodness for the heart is so perverse that one should never be surprised by wrath. Blessing is that which should surprise and astound for it is the outreach of pure grace. Even the saved—those born again, clothed in the righteousness of Christ by faith, and involved in the daily discipline of mortifying the flesh and living unto righteousness—still have sufficient perversity of heart and wickedness of action when seen in the light of the utter purity of the Law of God to condemn them every day. When they finally come to judgment, none will desire to stand in the personal righteousness of even one moment of earthly life. “Madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead” (9:3).
  • The only way that a person can see the moral texture of an event is through his commitment to those things that God has revealed about the purpose of his actions toward his people. The internal response tells the character of the event for it shows the character of the person, whether a product of grace or the response of the mind set on the flesh. “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6). In opposition to the preachers of prosperity, those things that most clearly show a gracious intention of God are the struggles against the world that frequently result in suffering for those captured by grace. To the Philippians, Paul wrote, “Not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil 1:28, 29). Also Paul drew an inference from their response to his preaching the gospel in difficult circumstances that the Thessalonians were “loved by God.” “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. . . . for you received the word in much affliction. . . . You turned from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven” (1 Thess. 1:4, 9, 10).

B. As long as a person lives, however, he may consider that death brings a person to a final destination and no remedial action can be taken subsequent to the last breath. Verse 4-6

  1. The sober words, “and the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.” (Revelation 20:12) All the actions of all persons are contained in those books, and when death comes the account is closed for each person and we await the glorious appearing of the Alpha and Omega, bringing his recompense with him “to repay everyone for what he has done” (Revelation 22:12, 13). If that constitutes the total that is present on our account then we are “thrown into the lake of fire.” The dead can do nothing further in this life, nor can they alter the righteous sentence that establishes the abode of eternity. Only those whose names are written in the “Lamb’s book of life” (21:15) will enter the city whose light is God, where nothing unclean will ever enter. On the one hand they enter because their names were written in the book of life “before the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8; 17:8) and, just as surely their names remain in that book because they “have not soiled their garments, and they walk with” the Lamb of God (Rev. 3:4, 5) and they “wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates” (Rev. 22:14). The person that is still alive may yet so “wash his garments.” While a person lives he has hope, no matter how foolish and fumbling his life has been for “a living dog is better than a dead lion.” Sovereign converting grace may yet move the living sinner to go to the only fountain of cleansing, forgiveness, and righteousness where he will wash his robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb (Rev. 7:14).
  2. Both in preparation for the life to come and in all relations in this life, the dead have done all they can do. “The dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten” (5). “Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.” No longer can the dead insult the righteous in this life, and their time of preparing for the judgment to come has ceased. Gregory the Great, in his Dialogues told stories of dead people that reappeared in this life to request the living to pray for them that their souls would be released from purgatory. These purely fabulous stories have nothing to do with the sober fact of the biblical viewpoint that death seals destiny. But the “living know they will die,” (5) and may yet hear and believe the truth, they may yet see the blood and righteousness of Christ as their only acceptable plea so that they will be “guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 1:8)


II. Chapter 9:7-10 – Thus we see that God has given us this life to be faithful stewards of all that is in it, taking advantage of those things that sustain it, give it joy, and make it productive. One’s faith in God will be demonstrated in the Godward orientation toward both possessions and relationships.

A. Verse 7 – Food is more than mere sustenance, it is a gift of God as a type of the pleasures that are ours in his presence. Food and drink are not to be gods, and temporal pleasure will destroy us if we make it our end in life (Philippians 3:19). Also, though all foods may be enjoyed (for the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof- 1 Corinthians 10:26), any of it may be bypassed if greater spiritual benefit accrues to the omission than to the use (1 Corinthians 8:13; 10:31-33). On most occasions, however, we are to view these elements in the scope of God’s provision for us. Though food and drink and other pleasure producing things are temporary, so is earthly existence and the bodily sensation of this corruptible flesh, but God has designed the one for the other and, when used according to His design, there is a fitness in how food pleases the palate, and drink not only quenches the thirst but quickens the sense of the goodness and exuberance of creation. God’s giving it to us for this purpose means that he approves of its use as a means of celebrating the goodness of the Creator (cf. 1 Timothy 4:3-5)

B. Verse 8 – Cleanliness, bodily appearance, and health should be matters of daily concern. Even as we desire to be preserved unto eternal life by the special grace and providence of God, so we recognize that by daily provision of clothes and health-giving material we have a stewardship to preserve temporal life in a way that shows we treasure it as a gift of God and as preparatory to the glorious incorruptible life after the resurrection. Our care of the body here, shows that we know that God has created it and that in its incorruptible state we will be perfectly fitted to sense the glory of God in eternity and worship him unstintingly. “This mortal must put on immortality;” and if this is so, and God shall so adorn and honor this material life that he has created, we should keep it in good order as a witness to our faith that God is the God of all things—of creation as well as redemption. Though a good name is rather to be chosen than fine ointment, if fine ointment can be used for the preservation, and even enhancement, of the temporal strength given by God without the sacrifice of a good name, then we know that “God has already approved what you do” (7)

C. Verse 9 – The relationship of marriage should be treasured and the joy of this God-given companionship should be fostered with purpose and a sense of privilege. God brought to Adam one that was made from his own flesh and bone, the only creature in all this vast universe that was specially fitted for him. After death, there is neither marrying nor giving in marriage, no one will have either wives or husbands (contrary to the Mormon heresy). This relationship is given particularly for this life immediately for the fulfillment and pleasure of both man and woman. By the amazing intelligence of the Creator, the pleasure of marriage becomes the means also for the continuance of the race from generation to generation. Because of the peculiar covenant and union involved in the husband-wife relationship designed by God himself, God condemns divorce and made provision for it only in light of our hardness of heart (Malachi 2:14-16; Matthew 5:31, 32; 19:3-9). It is, therefore, a peculiarly good thing to enjoy marriage and to labor at our calling in such a way as to make our marriages more dear to us. This is our portion in this vain life. Work and enjoy it now, for it extends only until death makes the separation. Our labor to seal the joy of this temporal state is well-invested for Christ gave his life that he might purchase for himself a bride.

D. Verse 10 – In light, therefore, of all that God has given and his approval of these passing, temporary, earthly streams of satisfaction, work in order to sustain this life in the full advantage of these divinely bestowed blessings. (cf. 2:24ff; 3:9ff) After death, none of these things matter, and they will not exist in this temporal form. Labor is given in this life to sustain us in the means by which the fullest, most God-centered enjoyment of it may be accomplished. In Sheol, the place of the dead, none of the means by which we formulate ideas, create relationships, or advance in character and fulfillment of duty will be valid. It must be done here, if it is to be done at all. When we enter eternity, we will see for certain that either blessing or cursing is unalterably established, that we are in the hands of God for thriving or for perishing. Some will go to everlasting flames and some will enter into the joy of their Lord. And all of our thoughts, and all of our actions, and all of our wisdom cannot change the design God has established for our eternity. The lost will see that they are responsible for their condemnation, their mouths will be stopped as to any objections to God’s justice, and the sentence against them cannot be altered by any “work or thought or knowledge or wisdom” in Sheol, for in the place of the dead all of these means of human advancement and alteration of relationship are gone. The saved will see that they have received an inheritance that is incorruptible, undefiled, and that does not fade away solely by God’s choice arising from eternal lovingkindness; and all of their labor, and thought, and wisdom now is swallowed up in the wisdom of the cross—since in God’s wisdom, man by wisdom, did not know God—and in the complete and perfect provision of Christ who is, of God, made unto us wisdom—that is, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. Thus while we do, within its proper sphere, labor for the bread that perishes, we do it in a way always with a view to gain the bread that endures to eternal life (John 6:26, 27).


III. Verses 11, 12. – In this life, one of its mysteries is the apparent imbalance between actual talent and recognition, valuable learning and pedagogical influence, sober wisdom and influential position. Those that have a superior possession of the one often have an inferior opportunity for its recognition in social relationships.

A. Solomon observed that the advantage of recognition for a work well done frequently does not accrue to those that have the most talent for it.

  1. The swift does not always win the race; victory in battle often falls to the weaker foe; the foolish, not the wise, many times prosper in material gain; wealth does not always find its way to those most capable from an intellectual standpoint of generating productive commerce or innovation; and recognition to positions of leadership often are given to those whose knowledge gives them slim qualification.
  2. Sometimes it is a matter of who is “in the right place at the right time.” A need generates a position and the more qualified person comes around too late to be placed there. For reasons unrelated to actual performance of a task one person finds favor with a person in authority, and he receives a position for which another actually has greater qualification for that task. As we see how these things fall out in this life, we conclude with Solomon “time and chance happen to them all.” Of course, we do not look at “chance” as some kind of impersonal fate, but we recognize that circumstances many times dictate an outcome more than intrinsic personal qualifications (cf. 7:15; 8:14). The Christian is the only person that actually can believe in, and be satisfied with “chance,” for he sees the final equity of all things, not as the perfect arrangement of them according to actual merit and qualification in human affairs, but according to the wisdom of God in how he works them for his own glory. We learn to trust in divine providence, not in our conception of the advantage we should be given because of natural abilities.
  3. Neither does death come at a predictable time but “it suddenly falls upon [us].” Nor are the evil of this world taken out of it more quickly than the righteous. Nor are the talented and useful left to benefit their surroundings while the destructive and hostile swiftly disappear. Snares that bring death are all around and seem to be no respecter of persons. A godly wife and mother dies of breast cancer at 32 and leaves behind an adoring husband and four children. An abortion doctor works at his horrific trade to his mid-sixties and then retires to Europe to enjoy his corrupt gain in sophisticated company and elegant food and dwelling. But when death finally comes, it takes him while he was thinking “peace and safety” and dispatches him out of the world to appear, with no seeming passage of time at all, before the sovereign and righteous judge of all men. Only rarely does the time of death seem propitious—though the godly know that it is better than the day of birth (7:1)—but it always takes us by surprise; the life that was there the moment before, now is gone and with it every thought and word and touch that once was common has perished.


IV. Chapter 9:13-18 – Though amazing feats of wisdom may soon be forgotten, wisdom, even in weakness and poverty, still is better than riches or power without wisdom.

A. Solomon tells of a defenseless city, besieged by a great power, apparently soon to fall to this hostile force. But somehow, a man in the city, having wisdom about all of these matters (in what way Solomon does not tell, for he is not trying to make a point about strategy in war) negotiated a way to save the city.

B. Though this deliverance seemed impossible, it came, and the people, overwhelmed with joy at their deliverance, accepted the gift but had no thought for the giver. Perhaps they did not believe such an unimposing figure as this poor man could actually possess such strategic wisdom as to befuddle the plans of a mighty conqueror. So it is with sinners that desire deliverance from punishment but have no thought of love to God. If they could have heaven and also keep their sin, they would gladly do it. Or they look to a certainty for eternity but find the way of the cross a stumbling block and foolish. They never consider, that like the poor man in this solomonic example, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being [flesh] might boast in the presence of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). Deliverance is exhilarating, but the wisdom by which it occurs is far superior.

C. Verses 16 – 18 – In spite of this peculiarly onerous example of vanity, Solomon points to the superiority of wisdom even when its bearer does not receive due gratitude.

  1. Though wisdom often is isolated to the secret halls of advisement, its value far surpasses the shouting of one that has the power of ruling. The world looks to the sensational, but Christ was lowly and despised, rejected by the religious leaders of Israel and laughed at by the strong men of Rome. But, in accordance with the secret kept hidden from the foundation of the world, the stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. Those destined to wrath find their doom in ignoring him in his apparent humiliation; but those chosen find his preciousness hidden in the deep wounds of his humiliation (1 Peter 2:7-9)
  2. When men act wisely and nobly, this is more to be desired than all the power of technology that creates an increasingly oppressive war machine. The world finally will be subdued to absolute justice, not by human might and force, but by divine wisdom. God certainly will display his power—his omnipotence—in subduing all things to himself, but it is a power administered according to holy beauty of his infinite wisdom by which he demonstrates his justice both in the judging of sinners and in the free justification of other sinners who have faith in Christ.
  3. Nothing will foil the plan of God, but in matters of human wisdom and righteousness, one act of foolishness and sin can make years of wisdom and uprightness utterly fail. As the initial verse of the next chapter says, “Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.” Man’s wisdom is very fragile and his righteousness is relative. So when we have planned most discreetly and have tried to anticipate every eventuality, we still cannot control the envy, greed, vengefulness, lust, and selfishness that can ruin and bring to failure a seemingly “foolproof” plan. Character, carefully guarded and developed for a quarter of a century, can be effaced in the space of a moment—a lust that lingers, envy that urges, offense that festers into vengeance, malice that discovers a surprising opportunity.
  4. Only God finally brings all things to his intended result, working all things after the counsel of his own will. “His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Daniel 4:34, 35)
Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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