Admonition to Carefulness (9:10-11:6)

9:10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, where you are going.

Because of the certainty of death and uncertainties of life, we are not living sensibly if we do not make the most of the opportunities we still have in this world (8:16-9:6). Qoheleth's admonition to enjoy life with one’s spouse was given in light of this (9:7-9). He now extends his admonishment to “whatever your hand finds to do.” The phrase does not refer to whatever we happen to be doing (Fox 1999: 295). It is an idiom that means doing what needs to be done that is within our capacity to do (1Sam 10:6-7; 25:8; Lev 12:8; Jud 9:33). And we are to do it zealously (“with your might”). The admonition is about what we should and could be doing before we die. If we do not heed it, on our deathbed, and perhaps even before that, when we consider how we have lived, we would feel a deep sense of meaninglessness. This is particularly so with regards to our lifework or occupation, which occupies most of our waking hours (cf. Brown 2000: 95). In today’s terms, we are here admonished to fulfill our “calling” or “vocation.”

What then is a vocation? “If you have a vocation, you have a strong feeling that you are particularly suited to a particular job or role in life, especially one which involves serving other people” (Collins Cobuild English Dictionary). When we view and so treat our occupation as our vocation, we zealously seek to serve humanity by meeting people’s needs (“what needs to be done”) according to our gifts and opportunities (“within our capacity to do”). This would require us to fear God and observe the commandment to love other people as ourselves.

Unfortunately, for some time now, it has been taken for granted that one’s occupation is one’s “career” rather than one’s calling. When we view our occupation as a career, we treat it as “a course of professional life or employment ... that offers advancement or honor (Bellah 1996: 119). This is because “work as career is motivated by the desire for success and recognition” (Baumeister 1991: 119). This led many people to choose an occupation based on the money or the prestige it offers, or both, rather than on what they are gifted and have a passion for. So instead of fulfilling their calling to serve humanity they are pursuing their career for self-advancement and temporal success. Qoheleth has already warned that this is vanity and a grievous affliction (2:12-23; 4:4-8,13-16; 5:10-17; 6:1-9). We will not find life (and work) fulfilling or meaningful.

To increase the sense of urgency to make the most of our limited time in this world, Qoheleth reiterates that “there is no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, where you are going.” As in 9:5, this statement describes the dead in relation to this world and not their condition in the hereafter. The opportunity for human activities in this world such as working and planning, using human abilities like knowledge and wisdom, no longer exists once we die. As Eaton puts it, “The Preacher does not provide any positive description of Sheol. Negatively it is characterized by the absence of opportunity for earthly life; more than that he does not say” (1983: 129). The message is that, “When this life is terminated, there is absolutely no opportunity of making up for the tasks left undone, no matter how many and varied our gifts may have been” (Leupold 1952: 217).

In effect, this is an admonition to be careful in how we live (and work). And it qualifies and complements the oft-repeated admonition to be carefree. For to be carefree does not mean to be complacent and careless; we are to be careful. And to be careful does not mean to be full of cares; we are to be carefree. In the extended passage that follows, Qoheleth elaborates on what it means to be careful in the face of the uncertainties of life (9:11-11:6). And he pays attention to making the most of our occupation.

9:11 Further, I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, and the battle is not to the valiant, and neither is bread to the wise, nor riches to the discerning, nor favor to those with knowledge; for time and chance befall them all. 9:12 For indeed man does not know his time: like fish caught in a dreadful net, and like birds caught in a snare, so the children of man are ensnared at a time of calamity, when it falls upon them suddenly.

Qoheleth has previously made the observation that even the righteous and the wise cannot discover what will happen to them because they and their deeds are also “in the hand of God” (8:17-9:1). So they do not know “whether it is love or hate; anything awaits them.” The phrase “anything awaits them” refers not only to what happens to them personally but also to the outcome of their deeds, whether they are successful (signified by “love”) or not (“hate”).

The word “Further” in verse 11 indicates that Qoheleth is building on this observation. Obviously the verse is not saying, “the race is (always) not to the swift ...,” but rather, “the race is not (always) to the swift....” It elaborates graphically Qoheleth’s observation that it is possible that those expected to be successful because of their abilities, may not succeed. This is because “time and chance befall them.” In other words, an unexpected outcome (“hate” instead of “love”) may be awaiting them (cf. Schoors 2004: 117, 205).

We experience unexpected outcomes because “man does not know his time.” The word “time” here, and in “time and chance,” refers to the time or occasion an event happens, as in “a time to love, and a time to hate” (3:8). So we may even encounter a calamity that befalls us suddenly. To recapture for us this sense of unexpectedness, Qoheleth uses the imageries of fish getting caught in a net and birds getting trapped in a snare. We should make the qualification that the phrase “time and chance befall them,” which is the same as “anything awaits them,” may refer to a positive event (“love” instead of “hate”). Qoheleth uses negative imageries to illustrate it because he is now highlighting the possibility that those expected to win may actually lose. This is in line with his admonition to be careful.

This qualification reminds us that the phrase “time and chance” refers back to the set of opposite (positive and negative) events represented in the poem of 3:1-8. There we are told that the “times” are actually appointed by God (3:1,11). Hence, though we may encounter an event as “chance” because we do not expect it, it is still “in the hand of God” (9:1). And though this means that what happens to us is beyond our control, it is within God’s control. So those who acknowledge the sovereignty of God and His purpose in making “everything appropriate in its time [so] that man should fear Him” (3:11,14) are able to entrust their times to Him and be carefree. In fact, because the God of the Bible is a personal Being, the psalmist could beseech Him: “My times are in your hand; save me from the hand of my enemies and from my persecutors” (Ps 31:15).

9:13 I have also seen this (case concerning) wisdom under the sun, and it seemed significant to me. 9:14 There was a small city with few men in it, and a great king came to it and surrounded it, and built huge siegeworks against it. 9:15 But there was found in it a poor wise man and he might have delivered the city by his wisdom. Yet no one remembered that poor man. 9:16 So I said, “Wisdom is better than might.” But the poor man’s wisdom was despised and his words are not heard. 9:17 The words of the wise (spoken) in calmness are to be heard rather than the clamor of a ruler among fools. 9:18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.

Qoheleth then recounts an observation which made an impression on him: a wise man might have saved a city from being captured by a powerful enemy but no one "remembered," or considered, him. This was due to prejudice against him because he was poor, and so he and his wisdom were despised. They would rather suffer calamity than be delivered through a poor man’s wisdom. This observation reflects a larger phenomenon that is seen even today. Often a nation or an organization is heading towards disaster because those in power do not operate by sound proverbial wisdom. And they despise those in their midst who are wise, because heeding their wisdom means going against their personal agenda. So they would not even allow the words of the wise to be heard.

This particular observation demonstrated to Qoheleth that “Wisdom is better than might ... and weapons of war.” So he declares that the unassuming counsel of the wise are to be heard rather than the pretentious claims of even the best (“ruler”) among the fools (cf. 7:5). But the observation also illustrates what Qoheleth has just said earlier: “favor is not (always) to the wise.” So he qualifies that wisdom may fail to secure a favorable outcome: “one sinner destroys much good.” A “sinner” is one who is not “good in God’s sight” and hence lacks “wisdom, knowledge and joy” (2:26). In other words, it takes just one person who does not fear God to undo the wisdom of the wise and wreak havoc through his folly. This is particularly true if that foolish person happens to be the one in power. In the next passage Qoheleth counsels those who could avert this kind of unfortunate outcome.

10:1 Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench; a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor. 10:2 A wise man’s heart is (inclined) to the right, but a fool’s heart to the left. 10:3 Even when the fool walks on the road, his sense is lacking, and he says to everyone that he is a fool. 10:4 If the temper of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your (official) position, for composure allays great offenses.10:5 There is a misfortune that I have seen under the sun, an actual error that proceeds from the ruler: 10:6 folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in humble places. 10:7 I have seen slaves on horses, and princes walking like slaves on the ground.

He begins by reiterating that, just as a dead fly destroys a bowl of ointment, a little folly has a greater impact than (“outweighs”) wisdom and the esteem that comes with it. He then assures us that it is not difficult to detect folly (and be forewarned). For a fool’s decision or action is conspicuously unwise as his heart is not inclined to the path of wisdom. And so “even when the fool walks on the road,” signifying how he conducts himself in public, “his sense is lacking” and it is obvious to everyone that he is a fool; except to himself, since hardly anyone deliberately displays his folly publicly. It is certainly true that we can recognize folly when we see it, and that we often fail to recognize it when we are the ones committing it. This means we need others, especially those who care about us, to alert us when we are being foolish. This is not to suggest we take seriously every criticism directed at us. But we need to take special note when someone points out that what we are doing actually violates what we ourselves accept as sound proverbial wisdom.

In 8:1-5 court officials are counseled on how to respond to a king who is acting unjustly. For though injustice (read folly) is obvious to an observer it is usually not so to the one committing it. So a court official is to respond carefully and wisely to the king. He is not to desert the ruler quickly, but to maintain a composure that would enable him to know when and how to address the problem. Here in verse 4, Qoheleth gives a similar counsel. The court official is not to abandon his official position even when the ruler becomes angry with him. For his reconciliating composure may enable him to influence the ruler so that he does not make a decision which is indeed foolish (“an actual error”) that eventually brings about upheavals in society: “folly is set in many high places ... and princes walking like slaves on the ground.” Qoheleth said he has seen such a misfortune actually happening. Indeed, if there were more aides who are God-fearing and truly wise to people in power, less misfortune would befall innocent people.

exposition of this section continued next page


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