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Author:Rev. Mark Chen
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Congregation:First Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore
Preached At:
Title:Capability and Intelligence Don’t Always Succeed
Text:Ecclesiastes 9:11-18 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Trinity Hymnal Revised 1990, The Psalter 1912

Psalter 137 - Acceptable Worship
TH 494 - Forgive Our Sins as We Forgive
TH 358 - For All the Saints

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

A few years ago, 2 inmates escaped prison after killing their guards. There was a huge man hunt, and a generous reward was promised for information leading to their arrest. After their escape, they held an elderly couple captive. But thankfully, the couple escaped and called the police. But when the convicts were fleeing, they mistook as police officers, 2 civilians who were out trying to work for the reward, and they surrendered themselves to them. These civilians also alerted the police to their location. The police finally arrived and arrested the escapees. But the reward was not paid to the civilians. Why not? The officers said that the convicts thought they were surrendering to police and so why should a reward be paid? Newspapers which picked up the news ran headlines like - civilians cheated of their rewards, or no rewards for deserving pair. Yes, we don’t always get the rewards we think we deserve. Now , Solomon had previously touched on such unfairness in life. He has explored injustice in government, at the workplace, etc. But here, he explores it in more detail, especially looking at 2 other realities of life. Firstly, our capability doesn’t always guarantee results. Secondly, our intelligence also doesn’t guarantee rewards.

Firstly, our capability doesn’t always guarantee results. And we see this clearly in verse 11 - “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” We think those who are fast will win the race; the strong will win the battle; and the intelligent will be rich. We think it pays to be capable. Yes, of course! But it doesn’t always lead to good results. 

We think the strongest should win the battle. Ahasuerus was in every way stronger than the Greeks he was trying to conquer. He had an army of over 200,000 soldiers and a navy of a 100 ships. But at Thermopylae, he was severely weakened by King Leonidas of Sparta and his 300 warriors. Eventually Ahasuerus was defeated. And we think that people of understanding should have plenty. They’re capable and know how to plan well, earn well, save well. Shouldn’t that be their payoff? Not necessarily. While some people can tell a good investment from a bad one, not all investments remain good. The capability to do things and preempt things doesn’t necessarily lead to success. Solomon said things don’t work that way. Why? 

Because time and chance are to blame. The end of verse 11 says - “but time and chance happeneth to them all.” Now, the word “chance” here may throw us off. Some people believe in luck or fortune - some imaginary force. The Chinese pagans worship the God of Luck. The Greeks worshiped Fortuna. But luck does not exist. God’s in control over all things. And Solomon believed that, so why did he use the word “chance”? The Hebrew word for “chance” can also be translated as “occurrence.” And Solomon admitted that sometimes, things seem to occur by chance. They seem almost random, unplanned, unexpected.

This year, there were a number of students who could not take their PSLEs. Some were capable, they studied, and when they were about to take them, they had quarantine orders. They came into contact with a COVID patient. It just happened. Or their parents came into contact. It just happened. Or the day of their exam, they had a fever. It just happened. Despite being capable, they couldn’t take their exam. The exam board said they’d grade them by considering past scores in other tests of the same subject and their cohort’s scores. So if they did badly in the past, but improved for PSLE, it wouldn’t count. If they did better than their cohort, but MOE took the cohort’s scores, they also rugi.

We all expect the rabbit to win the race, but who expected him to fall asleep? It happened. The Canaanites expected Jabin and Sisera to win. They had the armies, Barak and Deborah were surrounded. But there was a flood and an electrical storm. It happened. Both the Philistines and Israelites expected Goliath to win. But David who couldn’t handle Saul’s armor or sword, hit Goliath in the only place not covered by armor with the first of 5 stones. Seemed like chance. So no matter how capable a person may be, hard times occur. And verse 12 says we can never predict when they happen - “For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.” A fish swimming in the sea is caught by a net. A bird sings a song then the fowler traps it. People also experience this. Time and chance are to blame. Like the rich fool - he was very capable - he earned much and stored it - but then he died suddenly! The death trap snapped on him. People have heart attack, car crash, serious diagnoses. Their lives are changed.

Dear friends, Solomon is working hard to shatter our illusion of this world that we won’t cling to it. And this is strange because hust before this passage, Solomon gave 4 commands. Since there are harsh realities, we should make the best out of life. Verse 7 tells us to enjoy food to the glory of God. Verse 8 encourages us to celebrate - to put on festive clothes and wear perfume. Verse 9 encourages romance. Verse 10 encourages us to work hard. Now, when we hear this, many of us assume that such commands must mean that there are implied promises. Since God commands us to do this, we must therefore have the capability to enjoy food, the chances to celebrate, and have a spouse to be romantic with and a job to work hard in. But the problem is this - sometimes there’s no capability - food may be scarce; no celebration, or no marriage to be romantic in. And while there may be financial capability, there may be no health. While we may have money to go to Fullerton Hotel, we may be too sick to enjoy food. While we may have fine clothes to wear, we have no friends to celebrate with. And while we may be married, marital relations are cold. The command to enjoy life can’t always be carried out. Capability and power don’t guarantee results. And that’s why we feel the unfairness. Solomon is merely describing life and we shouldn’t have false expectations.

Then there are some who think that intelligence can lead to great results. But no. That’s what Solomon explores secondly - intelligence doesn’t always bring rewards. But before he does this, he admits that it pays to be intelligent. Solomon knows the profit of being smart - it’s better than being foolish. Verse 16 says that wisdom is better than strength. He even describes an account in verses 14-15, where a great king came to attack a small town with his army. But there was a poor wise man that helped his town to save it. This is marvelous. You have a comparison. This man was a poor man. The city that he was in, was a small town. But the king was a king with an empire. The town had very few people. But the king had a large army. The king had the wealth to build war machines. But the poor man - what did he have? He had intelligence. By wisdom, verse 15, he saved the city. Being smart and having understanding led to success. 

But what we see is sad. The smart man wasn’t rewarded. There was no payout for him. Something happened and he wasn’t remembered. You would’ve thought that having saved the town, he would be remembered - that his wisdom would catapult him to fame and honor; that streets and schools would be named after him. But this didn’t happen. Why? Because he was poor. Verse 16 - “Then said I, Wisdom is better than strength: nevertheless the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard.” The words spoken will not be appreciated. Doesn’t that frequently happen? It’s human nature to believe that the rich and those of high status are wiser. This was the problem of the Corinthians church - while most of the people in the church were not noble, mighty, rich, or wise; they looked up to the noble, mighty, and rich - because they thought they were wise. They despised Paul because he was short, bald, bowl-legged man, with a unibrow, who didn’t speak as eloquently as Apollos. And this was what the Lord Jesus himself faced. When Philip went to Nathaniel to tell him they found the Messiah whom whom Moses spoke about; Nathaniel asked - “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Even Jesus’ own brothers and sisters despised him. And when the apostles preached the gospel, the people were amazed because they were fishermen and Galileans! 

That’s the hard reality. Why? Because understanding doesn’t stand a chance against sin and sinners. Verse 18 - “Wisdom is better than weapons of war: but one sinner destroyeth much good.” Time and chance destroy many things. But Solomon now adds people to the equation. Wisdom can achieve much. But one sinner can destroy a whole lot of good. Don’t underestimate how one person can ruin things. Jay Adams wrote in his book “Life Under the Son” (p 100)- “it takes only one person doing wrong to destroy the good work of many. One foolish, vindictive woman on a telephone for a week can ruin a church that took many years to build. One foolish successor can destroy the company built up by several wise businessmen. (Or one lie can destroy politics). People must be warned of the consequences of spiteful or slanderous remarks. Notoriety is also fleeting because people are fickle.” And we have a great example of that. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was the wisdom of God. But when he came, the world through its own wisdom, knew him not. And they despised him and his wisdom. They despised the gospel. He taught forgiveness, but they taught hatred. He taught an inner heart religion, they taught an outward righteousness. His wisdom was foolishness to them. And in their wisdom, they crucified him. 

Solomon is telling us to be realistic. Many of us have put in much effort and thought into living. But we aren’t where we desire to be. Our capability and understanding did not get the results we wanted. Sin, ours and others, times of tragedy and seeming bad luck - had overtaken us in life. But this should not surprise us beloved. If these things happened to the Lord Jesus Christ, they will happen to us. But have a kingdom perspective. Yes, Christ was crucified by sinful men, his wisdom and gospel were rejected; sinful men loved their outward righteousness and hated true righteousness. But remember this. It was in the fullness of time that Christ came, to be made of a woman, and to live under the law. It was not a random occurrence. Neither was his crucifixion. He was delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, and taken by his enemies, and by wicked hands was crucified. But it was by God’s wisdom. But in the end, righteousness will be rewarded. God rewarded Christ and raised him from the dead. He ascended to heaven to the praises of all the angels. He sits on the right hand of God’s throne, ruling his church and having a people over which to rule.

That’s why, dearly beloved, while we labor here on earth, we should not labor primarily for temporal but spiritual things. The rich fool was not rich toward God. But if we are rich and wise toward God and spiritual things, he will reward us. Christ himself said in Revelation 22:12-13 - “And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.” The reward will come when Christ comes. It’s not now - not really. It’s irrational for us to expect all rewards now. But that’s our problem - we expect small rewards like honor, money, promotion, comfort, smart kids. These are small compared to what God has in store for us by the gospel. “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”

The reward comes after the race. The goal is at the end. When we expect rewards now, it’s like saying God should give us the trophy, so that we can run with the trophy. The eternal rewards come after. Yes, God graciously gives us cups of water to help us through tough times. Now, we have justification, sanctification, his Spirit, his Word, his peace, adoption, spiritual gifts. But the prize of paradise is not now. Life under the sun is broken. And unless we have this long understanding, life here will be horrifically miserable. And that’s why some of you are struggling - your eyes are on earthly rewards. But when we dwell on the messiness of life, we feed these feelings of injustice. But we forget the injustice done to Christ. He received injustice so we would not bear the just punishment we justly deserved! But unless we have learned this, and made peace with God through Christ, we won’t have rest. This is what we come today to proclaim in the Lord’s Supper. That our capable and wise God sent his capable and wise Son to earth; to be killed by sinners, so that he might bear their sins on the cross to those who had sinned against him. Why? So they may have the eternal rewards. This is the power and wisdom of the cross. Let us now proclaim this in our hearts as we partake of the Holy Supper.

Sermon Outline:

1. Our Capability Doesn’t Guarantee Results

    A. Strength doesn’t always pay out

    B. Time and chance are to blame

    C. The command to enjoy can’t always be carried out

2. Our Intelligence Doesn’t Guarantee Rewards

    A. It pays to be smart

    B. But wisdom isn’t always respected

    C. Wisdom doesn’t stand a chance against sinners

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Rev. Mark Chen

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