Saturday, June 27, 2020

Time and Chance (42)

Forty-two Saturdays into our study of Ecclesiastes, we come at last to the phrase which we have taken as our theme: “Time and chance happen to them all.”

Why do things happen to us the way they do? Ancient mythology makes reference to three goddesses who were thought to assign individual destinies to mortals at birth. The Greeks called them the Fates. The unsaved talk about “Lady Luck”, usually on their way to the casino, personifying an imagined force to which nobody can really appeal, but which every gambler hopes to have on their side. Even atheists find themselves inexplicably using the phrase “It was meant to be”, as if a random roll of the dice could actually signify intelligent purpose.

But in a world without revelation and with no sure way to know if there is a God or how he operates, we can only blame time and chance for the good and bad things that come our way.

Ecclesiastes 9:11 — The Luck of the Draw

The Preacher continues:
“Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.”
The Preacher gives five different situations here, all of which are familiar territory to anyone paying attention to this thing we often refer to as “the luck of the draw”.

Time and Chance at Work
  • The race is not to the swift. NHL forward Alex Mogilny’s breakout season ended with a broken leg in Game 2 of the Buffalo Sabres’ first playoff series. Chance stopped Mogilny’s run, not the Boston Bruins.
  • The battle is not to the strong. Then-undefeated heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson’s improbable decline began with a knockout loss to a 42-1 underdog. Time got to Tyson ... and maybe a tiny bit of overconfidence as well.
  • Bread is not to the wise and riches are not to the intelligent. A 2017 study demonstrated that people in lower social classes consistently outscore those in higher social classes in reasoning wisely. From all appearances, opportunity determines how the goodies get distributed in life, which is really just another name for chance.
  • Favor is not to those with knowledge. A handful of economists correctly forecast the 2007-8 global financial crisis. Steve Keen, Peter Schiff, Vox Day and a few others sounded the alarm early, but nobody was paying attention. These were not big enough names, and their warnings disappeared into the ether. Chance determines if a man is in a position to make himself heard against the racket created by the popular narrative.
Reality vs. Appearance

Time and chance happen to all. That is certainly the appearance of things outside of Christ. It is only through knowing God personally that we realize there is an “inside scoop” to be had. The Christian knows there really are “rulers ... authorities ... cosmic powers over this present darkness ... and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places”, and that these malevolent beings do not keep themselves to themselves, but may indeed play havoc with our plans. The Christian must wrestle against these forces, not just in the obvious battlefield of the moral realm, but in maintaining patience and hope in Christ when things do not go the way we anticipate.

More importantly, the Christian knows there is a court of appeal to which he can turn when he does not understand what is going on around him. When we find ourselves perplexed and at sea because of the apparently random turning of events in our lives, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” And truly, the believer does not need to know why something is happening to him so much as he needs to know that his loving Father is in control.

The Preacher never knew these consolations. They are a unique feature of the Christian experience.

Ecclesiastes 9:12 — What Time is It Exactly?
“For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.”
Time to Die

Fish taken in a net and birds caught in a snare have no idea what is happening to them until it is too late. Modern medicine has given us a better handle on what to expect when we are afflicted by certain conditions, but in some ways we are no better off than the birds and fish.

I had a friend who was diagnosed with terminal cancer a few years back. His doctor estimated he had two years to live, and that educated guess turned out to be almost exactly correct. On the other hand, a second friend’s adoptive father had a pacemaker installed to aid a seriously damaged heart, and his doctor told him he’d be lucky to last a year. His “year to live” turned out to be over twenty.

Man does not know his time. Even when the doctor estimated correctly, my friend still did not “know his time” because he second-guessed the professionals all the way along. Many of us have difficulty envisioning the world without us in it, and the inevitable sneaks up on us unprepared. And we must concede that in any case the experts are often wrong.

Time to be Ensnared

But the Preacher is not necessarily thinking only of death here. He says, “the children of man are snared”. The “it” which suddenly falls upon them may not refer explicitly to death, but to the “time and chance” of the previous verse. Solomon is thinking of those unexpected swerves we experience in life which, from the “under the sun” perspective, can only be attributed to fate or misfortune.

Things do not go the way we expect even during our lifetimes. The businessman plans to release new consumer goods to the market in February, only to find a competitor got there first with a better and more popular product, and that all his expensive research and development was wasted time and money. A young man plans to get his education through the U.S. army like all the men in his family, but is told he has a condition that makes him ineligible, and must go a different direction in life. A young couple marries with plans for a big family ... until their doctor tells them this is impossible for them. The college quarterback plans for a big NFL career until that nagging hamstring injury makes him undraftable.

A Cosmic Jest?

If we look only at things from the perspective of what can be known through the human senses and through lived experience, it can sometimes feel like a great cosmic game is being played with our lives, and the joke is forever being made at our expense. Woody Allen once paraphrased the old Yiddish proverb: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” That’s pretty much how it is for people who do not know the Lord personally.

Still, it remains true that even the Christian does not know his time. Even with all the divine revelation we have received, certain sorts of knowledge are still off-limits to us.

I find it difficult to believe that is a bad thing.

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