Comments on the Rat Race

Solomon has been sharing the fruit of his hard-won wisdom. After living apart from God he returns and notes some of the things he has learned concerning wisdom itself.
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Solomon has been sharing the fruit of his hard won wisdom. After living apart from God he returns and notes some of the things he has learned concerning wisdom itself, the qualities of good leadership and several basic principles upon which one's life must be based in order to succeed.

In the passages we will cover in this chapter, the writer will provide more advice on how to live and how to deal with certain people in our lives. Once Solomon stops using his wisdom for strictly worldly pursuits he focuses it on the simple "art of living" and how one can succeed during the brief time they have here under the sun.

We think that the idea of the "rat race" is a 21stcentury phenomenon where one is under pressure to perform, to pursue too many goals while neglecting family, working harder and longer but gaining less and less satisfaction. Our culture thinks it invented the rat race mentality, however Solomon's comments in chapter 9:11-18 demonstrate that even people who lived almost 3,000 years ago suffered from the same kinds of problems.

Solomon begins by commenting on the nature of the rat race as he observed it in his day.

The race is foolish

11I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all.

Even though some wake up earlier, run faster and try harder - there is no guarantee that these efforts will produce success. Blessings come to good and bad alike, and success is often achieved by those who are undeserving. Solomon says that to work harder and sacrifice everything in order to get ahead does not always guarantee success.

God's sovereign (time and chance) hand can level the playing field at any time.

Trusting in our ability is foolish

12Moreover, man does not know his time: like fish caught in a treacherous net and birds trapped in a snare, so the sons of men are ensnared at an evil time when it suddenly falls on them. 13Also this I came to see as wisdom under the sun, and it impressed me.

The entire rat race mentality is based on the false notion that "only the strong survive." If you are clever, knowledgeable, educated and have influence, you will get ahead and this will make you happy and satisfied. Solomon notes that trouble and death know no difference between the wise and the simple because everybody experiences trouble and everyone dies. Being first in line does not guarantee happiness nor does it protect you from sickness and death. Usually the rush to be first is what causes most of the problems.

Those who remain in the race remain fools

14There was a small city with few men in it and a great king came to it, surrounded it and constructed large siege works against it. 15But there was found in it a poor wise man and he delivered the city by his wisdom. Yet no one remembered that poor man.

Here, Solomon tells the story of a wise king who saved his city from attack only to be rejected and forgotten for his efforts. This story illustrates the foolish attitude of those caught in the rat race. They have a near death experience and are miraculously saved (no army, just the wisdom of one man) yet the experience does not change them in any way. They go right back to their pursuits, even forgetting to honor the one who saved them.

The rat race makes people self-centered and insensitive to spiritual things.

Based on these verses and others in the passage, Solomon develops some core ideas about life in the fast lane that helps those in it reconsider their lifestyle.

1. Human ability cannot guarantee genuine success

We go back to verse 11 to see that despite all human effort, final success is given to us by God. It is hard for us to accept that He permits even evil and selfish people to succeed wildly at times but we must remember that their success is short lived and limited by this world. True success in life is measured by the degree of peace, joy and love we experience and share, and no amount of talent or hard work guarantees these things - they are gifts from God.

2. Strength is more impressive yet less effective than wisdom

15But there was found in it a poor wise man and he delivered the city by his wisdom. Yet no one remembered that poor man. 16So I said, "Wisdom is better than strength."

We love to have and exercise power, but wisdom is always a more useful and profitable asset. The rat race mentality, however, moves us to acquire power not wisdom. Wisdom is not cultivated by "doing" but by "listening." When we finally shift gears in order to pursue wisdom, we take the first step in getting out of the rat race.

3. Wise counsel is not usually popular, rarely obeyed and seldom remembered

16bBut the wisdom of the poor man is despised and his words are not heeded.

It is a pessimistic observation but a true one. Historians say that the value of the study of history is to not repeat past mistakes. It is part of the human sinful nature to continually forget the lessons of the past.

The implicit advice is to continually review and reaffirm the counsel and instructions we have received in order to succeed.

4. Human rulers will always out shout wise counselors, and fools like it this way

17The words of the wise heard in quietness are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools.

The rat race is noisy, and most like it this way so they do not have to be distracted by another message or another way. In our society the rat race has one more meeting, one more thing to buy and one more holiday to get ready for. This kind of "noise" drowns out the quiet voice of the Spirit or the voice of our conscience and heart's true desire.

5. Wisdom is better than war

18Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.

If everyone listened to wisdom there would be no wars, but one fool can easily destroy what ten wise persons can build. In our lives the same is true, one foolish act or person, or the one time we compromise wisdom can lead to the destruction of much good – so we must be careful.

Wisdom and Folly - Chapter 10:1-11

Now that he has commented on the foolishness of the rat race itself and the advantage of opting out for a wiser course of living, Solomon continues to build his case for wisdom.

1. He contrasts wisdom and folly - vs. 1-10

The contrasting of these two traits can be broken down into three main sets of comparisons:

The advantages and disadvantages of wisdom

1Dead flies make a perfumer's oil stink, so a little foolishness is weightier than wisdom and honor. 2A wise man's heart directs him toward the right, but the foolish man's heart directs him toward the left. 3Even when the fool walks along the road, his sense is lacking and he demonstrates to everyone that he is a fool.

vs. 1 - Be careful because just a little foolishness can ruin a lifetime of wisdom (25 years of marriage ruined by a one-night-stand).

vs. 2 - Right personifies honor and strength; the left is foolishness and ruin. A constant practice of foolishness or wisdom will bring a constant result of success or ruin.

vs. 3 - Eventually fools have the reputation of being foolish and wise men have the reputation of being wise.

Humility and patience versus popularity and partiality

4If the ruler's temper rises against you, do not abandon your position, because composure allays great offenses. 5There is an evil I have seen under the sun, like an error which goes forth from the ruler— 6folly is set in many exalted places while rich men sit in humble places. 7I have seen slaves riding on horses and princes walking like slaves on the land.

vs. 4 - In another place Solomon says, "A soft answer turns away wrath," (Proverbs 15:1). Solomon shows that wisdom is better at handling difficult superiors than foolishness, which would return heat for heat, unreasonableness for unreasonableness.

vs. 5-7 - The down side is that many times unqualified people rise to the top and the wise are left at lower positions. Wisdom helps one to understand why this is so and makes the best of it. The fool would despair or covet and lose his soul.

Inevitable risk versus inexcusable stupidity

8He who digs a pit may fall into it, and a serpent may bite him who breaks through a wall. 9He who quarries stones may be hurt by them, and he who splits logs may be endangered by them. 10If the axe is dull and he does not sharpen its edge, then he must exert more strength.

vs. 8-10a - In these short proverbs Solomon is showing that there are consequences to actions (I.e. if you dig a pit, you risk falling into it). His point is that the fool does not measure the risk well and usually ends up getting hurt, whereas the wise person will take a risk but it will be calculated. With these contrasts Solomon is trying to demonstrate the advantages of pursuing and implementing wisdom in one's every day life by contrasting wise actions to folly and its results.

In verses 10b-11 he rounds out his thoughts by saying that wisdom is superior because it gives superior results in the long run.

10bWisdom has the advantage of giving success. 11If the serpent bites before being charmed, there is no profit for the charmer.

Fools succeed for a while but eventually the wise will win out. His final example is the one where the careless snake charmer is eventually bitten by his own snake - foolishness will bite you in the end.

A Fool's Portrait - vs. 12-20

He has talked objectively about wisdom and folly but now will become more personal as he describes the fool himself. What does a fool look like? Solomon describes him in detail at the end of this chapter.

The Character of a Fool

In other places Solomon has previously described the character of a fool.

1 - His language is one of disbelief.

The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God'.
- Psalms 14:1

Because of this he can live comfortably in a world without God.

2 - He loves sin.

  • He lies easily. Proverbs 14:8
  • He has no conscience. Proverbs 14:9
  • He easily offends God. Proverbs 19:3

When the Bible talks about a fool, it does not simply refer to a joker or a simpleminded person, but rather a Godless sinner who enjoys sin and disbelief.

Actions of a Fool

Now that we have seen some of Solomon's other comments about the character of a fool, let us review what he says about the action of fools.

1 - They make foolish talk

14aNo man knows what will happen, and who can tell him what will come after him?

The wise create goodness and wisdom with their words but fools simply create problems. The more they talk the more trouble they cause.

2 - They have unsure future

14bNo man knows what will happen, and who can tell him what will come after him?

Their foolish actions will get them into jail, hospital, unemployed, unmarried, etc. A fool's future is uncertain and painful.

3 - They are their own worst enemies

15The toil of a fool so wearies him that he does not even know how to go to a city.

The image is of a person who works hard for nothing or stupid results. For example, thieves who risk their lives with elaborate schemes only to gain a small amount. Cities were highly visible and to not know how to get there was the ultimate put down that you did not know right from left. "Clueless"

4 - They make poor leaders

16Woe to you, O land, whose king is a lad and whose princes feast in the morning. 17Blessed are you, O land, whose king is of nobility and whose princes eat at the appropriate time—for strength and not for drunkenness.

Some fools get to be leaders, but heaven help the families, churches, corporations, countries that get one. Do not expect leadership, only trouble from such a one.

5 - They Waste Time and Money

Through indolence the rafters sag, and through slackness the house leaks. 19Men prepare a meal for enjoyment, and wine makes life merry, and money is the answer to everything.

They let things go, cannot make decisions, put off action until it is too late. They love to enjoy themselves and think that money is the answer to everything; that is why they are always broke. Solomon ends the passage in verse 20 with a warning that it is dangerous to allow a fool to become your enemy because a fool loves to take revenge.

How to Deal With a Fool

Although it is not contained in this chapter, Solomon does give advice on how to deal with the fools in our lives.

1. Isolate them

Leave the presence of a fool, Or you will not discern words of knowledge.
- Proverbs 14:7

Do not speak in the hearing of a fool, For he will despise the wisdom of your words.
- Proverbs 23:9

If they continue, leave their presence, isolate them. No use reasoning with a fool, the best method is to allow them to face the consequences of their foolishness. Pain is the only language fools understand.

2. Restore them only if there is evidence of repentance and brokenness

10There were those who dwelt in darkness and in the shadow of death,
Prisoners in misery and chains,
11Because they had rebelled against the words of God
And spurned the counsel of the Most High.
12Therefore He humbled their heart with labor;
They stumbled and there was none to help.
- Psalm 107:10-12

39When they are diminished and bowed down
Through oppression, misery and sorrow,
40He pours contempt upon princes
And makes them wander in a pathless waste.
- Psalm 107:39-40

These verses show that God allows fools to suffer before coming to their rescue. Fools love to lie, so it is okay to require solid fruit of their repentance before restoring them to their former place.

3. When restored, proclaim the change

21Let them give thanks to the Lord for His lovingkindness,
And for His wonders to the sons of men!
22Let them also offer sacrifices of thanksgiving,
And tell of His works with joyful singing.
- Psalm 107:21-22

The foolish one restored is able to witness about his change to announce his restoration. Fools who are turned around can be a powerful witness for the grace of God and the power of His wisdom.

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