Visit any bookstore, and one is almost certain to find a relatively large section devoted to “self-help” literature. From books prescribing ten easy steps to improving one’s marriage, to writings that outline steps to guarantee success in business, to works that promise a technique that is certain to land one’s best career position, there is no shortage of books written as if prosperity is something that is entirely within our power to achieve. Even the church has its share of popular authors who take such a view, telling us that success is wholly within our grasp if we just do a, b, and c without neglecting x, y, and z.
These authors often turn to Scripture to support the promises they make, outlining the “biblical way to blessing” and other such things. Indeed, there is an appropriate way of doing this, for the Bible promises to bless to those who seek the Lord and keep His commandments (Deut. 28:1–14; Matt. 6:33). To set forth formulas that guarantee success in this world if we just follow a few simple steps is to misunderstand the biblical teaching on the divine blessing and the sovereignty of God. Though we can be confident that the Lord has good things for those who serve Him, Ecclesiastes 9:11-12 teaches us that the kinds of blessings we receive and the degree of prosperity we achieve are not ultimately in our hands.
Scripture repeatedly commends wise planning and hard work, both of which can increase our odds of success, humanly speaking, but there is no guarantee that all our designs and efforts will pay off. We remain subject to two powerful forces: “time” and “chance” (Eccl. 9:11). Of course, the Preacher who wrote Ecclesiastes does not view chance as a force operating outside of God’s oversight. After all, Ecclesiastes has a robust doctrine of divine providence that understands the Lord as having established a set time for every matter under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1–8). Instead, Ecclesiastes 9:11 speaks of things as they appear to the human eye to make an important point. No matter how carefully we plan or how hard we work, the swiftest might lose the race; the stronger army can be defeated; the smartest person does not always earn the most money; the most learned may not receive favor, and the wisest can go hungry (v. 11). An innumerable array of apparently random circumstances and events can thwart our best intentions. Our inability to see the future means we cannot anticipate or prevent all of the evil that might conspire against our labors (v. 12). Ultimately, our success is not in our hands but lies in what God has ordained.
The point of Ecclesiastes 9:11–12 is not to dissuade us from planning or to make us cynical about what we can do to live successfully; instead, the Preacher aims to keep us humble and to remind us of our proper place in creation. We are called to be diligent and wise, but events are never entirely under our control. God is sovereign, and we are not, and that truth should encourage us, as we plan, to trust finally and wholly in the Lord and not in our plans.
Wisdom, in the long term, cannot fail. This is the sure promise of God’s Word, grounded in the fact that Christ, who is Himself “wisdom from God” (1 Cor. 1:30), is King of kings and Lord of lords, and He will have the final victory (Rev. 19:11–21). Insofar as our plans and actions reflect this wisdom from above, they will be finally beneficial and bring us great reward and success.
In the short term, however, we must realize that divine wisdom is not always heard and that it does not always seem to win out. God’s enemies have been defeated at Calvary and are living on borrowed time, as it were, but until His plan is consummated in the new heaven and earth, they remain mighty and able to deceive many people. Satan continues to prowl like a lion (1 Peter 5:8), and sometimes he captures his prey. Divine wisdom cries aloud in the streets, both through what is clearly revealed in nature and by the proclamation of the gospel (Prov. 8; Rom. 1:18–32; 10:14–17), but sometimes the fools in this world scream so loudly that few seem to hear it.
Ecclesiastes 9:17–18 describes this reality, considering those times when the shoutings of a ruler among the fools who walk this earth seem to drown out the quiet wisdom that God speaks to His people and to the rest of creation. At such times, the rantings of ungodly leaders might seem to win out; nevertheless, the truth of the Lord spoken in quiet is still better (v. 17). God never promises His people that others will hear and obey this wisdom in the short run. In fact, as history tells us, the cacophony of foolishness and evil might gain the upper hand for a season. However, because this dissonance is opposed to all that is good and holy, it is sure to be finally silenced. We need to be reminded of this precious truth as God’s ways are shouted down, and people love the darkness rather than the light. When the darkness appears to be ascendant, it remains true that the light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it (John 1:5). Standing for the truth might bring suffering in the near term, but in light of eternity, receiving and believing the wisdom of God in Christ Jesus will lead to eternal blessing (3:16).
Divine wisdom is stronger than the mightiest weapons of war, but sinners may inflict much harm on God’s people with these weapons (Eccl. 9:18). Yet any “victory” they achieve is short-lived, for all who are in Christ will one day judge even the angels (1 Cor. 6:3).
Scripture repeatedly encourages us to take a long-term perspective. Divine wisdom will, on many occasions bring success in this world; however, there is no guarantee that following the Lord will make life easy on this side of glory. Sometimes we will suffer greatly for doing what God says. When this happens, we are to remember what the Lord actually promises, namely, that serving Him brings eternal blessing (Matt. 19:29).