Ecclesiastesby Philip E. Satterthwaite
The Teacher likes to present the different sides to an argument. He considers the same facts first from one angle, then from another.
In Ecclesiastes 8:1-9, his topic was the harm that an arbitrary and unjust ruler may do (and how to handle him). But then (vv. 10-17) he shifted his perspective, raising the question whether God is partly responsible for such injustice: after all, when God leaves the wicked unpunished, does that not encourage others in wickedness (v. 11)? And why do the righteous sometimes ″get what the wicked deserve″ (v. 14)? In chapter 9, he continued to focus on the injustice and unpredictability, which often mark God's world. He described ″evil times″, times when catastrophes engulf people and human life seems to be alarmingly cheap (9:12).
But today's passage gives a different perspective: yes, disasters occur in God's world, but they are often the result of human folly. The Teacher makes his point by telling a story involving one of the greatest of human catastrophes, invasion and war (vv. 13-16). A powerful king laid siege to a small city with few inhabitants. But there was an unexpected outcome: a man ″poor but wise″ rescued the city ″by his wisdom″. The Teacher gives no details. All we are told is that this man used his wisdom to bring the great king's plans to nothing (see also 7:19). But once the crisis was past, people forgot about him: instead of honouring him, they ignored him.
The Teacher generalises the point (9:17-18): wise advice can do much good, but only if others listen and act accordingly; and a fool or a wicked man may undo all the good that wise advice may do. People may be swayed by style rather than substance, paying attention to whoever makes the most noise or seems most impressive.
The results may be terrible. Think of Rehoboam, whose single act of folly caused the division of the kingdom of Israel (1 Kings 12); think of the prophets who warned of judgment but who were ignored in favour of other prophets who promised deliverance (Jeremiah 28; Ezekiel 13). Think of demagogues like Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot, men who persuaded their people to follow insane policies that cost many millions of lives.
So yes, many puzzling, unfair, and even outrageous things happen in God's world. At the very least, God allows these things to happen. But we should also not forget the parts played by human stupidity and wickedness: ″one sinner destroys much good″ (Ecclesiastes 9:18). If we are tempted to blame God for the world's manifest ills, we should remember the saying: ″When we point a finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back at us.″
Can you think of examples of wrong or foolish behaviour on your part that had serious and perhaps irreparable consequences? What have you learnt from these incidents?
Consider the Teacher's teaching style: he doesn't lay his cards on the table all at once, but only gradually reveals what he thinks, leaving his readers perplexed for a while. Are there advantages to this teaching style? If you are a teacher, is it a style you might consider adopting? How would you do this?