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The passage we are reading today is simpler in structure than the past few days, with two main subsections: firstly about the cruelty of fate (9:11-12), and secondly about the victory of quiet wisdom over foolish strength (9:13-18).
Verse 11 marks a definite shift from the previous section, as indicated by the first few words, yet it also still follows on the idea of 9:1-3 that chance – and death – overtakes everyone, regardless of who they are. Just like fish and birds caught in a snare, so are humans suddenly and without warning trapped by bad events in our lives. It happened to Job, it happens to many people we know, and even to ourselves. As a simple example, so many people have been unwittingly trapped into or out of a country by the coronavirus shut-downs. Qohelet observes that, just as the righteous is not always rewarded with a long life, nor the wicked punished, as human wisdom dictates, so also the fastest person doesn’t always win the race, nor does the strongest person win the fight. More poignantly but perhaps with less visual punch, nor does the wise or discerning person necessarily receive more wealth.
This thought leads Qohelet into his next contemplation, as he imagines a poor wise man in a besieged city. Our natural expectation is that the strong king with his great armory should be able to dominate this small city with few men. But somehow (in keeping with what we just saw in 9:11), he is outwitted by the poor man’s wisdom. Sadly, despite his unlikely victory, the poor man was not remembered (cf 9:5).
Nevertheless, Qohelet reflects that wisdom is better than strength and battle-weapons, even though the poor man’s wisdom was despised and no one listened to him. (I wish we knew more about the story to find out how he won that battle even though no one listened to him.) He goes on to assert, perhaps contrary to his own story, that quiet wise words are more listened to than foolish leaders’ shouting. How I wish that were true! In my personal experience it tends to be those with the loudest voices who are listened to; in our groups and organizations we need to practice listening to and amplifying the quiet words of the wise. In multi-cultural contexts, I would add that we need to be sure to listen to those who do not easily speak English.
The last phrase of 9:18 is also a great warning. The normal translation of this Hebrew word is ‘sinner’, but it could also be ‘one who misses the mark’ (cf Jdg 20:16), which may be a more helpful translation in this context which is not really about sin and evil but more about warfare. The resulting meaning would then be more like, “The one who gets it wrong destroys much good”. Therefore, be wise, and get it right!
To conclude then: Seek to be wise, because wisdom is better than strength and can conquer, contra expectations. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that wisdom is going to win every time; bad things can still happen to wise and knowledgeable people, and you may not be listened to anyway.
Prayer: God, my life is in your hands. Give me wisdom so that I can do good in my community. Help me to listen carefully to the quiet and to the poor.