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 favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. Ecclesiastes ix. 11.
The universe is governed by that almighty Being whose power called it into existence; That it owes its origin to some cause, and that this cause must be intelligent, infinitely powerful, and infinitely perfect, is a strong dictate of reason. "The fool only saith in his heart, there is no God." [Psalm xiv. 1.]
But if the world be created by an infinitely powerful and perfect Being, it must be preserved and governed by him. The same intelligence and power which produced it, will be necessary to sustain it. The infinite perfection of the Creator cannot permit him to be a passive spectator of the work of his hands, nor his infinite goodness to leave his intelligent creation unprotected. "The Lord he is God in heaven above, and upon the earth beneath." [Deut. iv. 39.] "He is the Governor among the nations." [Psalm xxii. 28.]
Under the control of the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth, the physical and moral world is [43/44] regulated by those general laws which he hath established. From the use of certain means, a certain result generally follows; but God, by his providence, sometimes interposes, and orders matters totally contrary to human calculation, and to the ordinary course of human affairs. The second causes, by which the great first cause governs the world, usually operate with certainty and uniformity; but sometimes the general effect does not follow; means the most likely to produce an end are sometimes ineffectually employed, and the end is sometimes produced by the most unlikely means. Things do not always issue according to the general laws by which God governs the world. This is the truth declared by the wise man in the text--"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 favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."
Solomon had been surveying the whole compass of nature, "from the cedar of Lebanon, to the hyssop that springeth out of the wall." [Kings iv. 33.] "He gave his heart also to seek and to search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven." [Eccles. i. 13.] Thus turning his thoughts from one subject to another, he contemplates and reproves, in the verse preceding the text, those slothful and desponding persons who, on account of the uncertainty of human affairs, discontinued the use of those means by which, ordinarily, success is obtained. Them he exhorts to diligence, to do with all their might whatsoever their hand findeth to do. In the words [44/45] of the text he then goes on, "I returned"--he turned his view to a contrary extreme in the conduct of perhaps more common--a presumptuous confidence in their own wisdom and exertions, as if by these, independently of the aid and blessing of God, success were to be obtained. This presumptuous conduct he reproves, by declaring that he saw under the sun, in the course of human affairs, events do not always take place according to the ordinary operation of second causes. "The race is not to the swift"--he who is the swiftest we should expect would always, according to the general laws of nature, win the race, and yet some untoward event may give the prize to an inferior rival. "Nor the battle to the strong"--victory we should suppose would attend the banners of the army the most formidable in numbers and in strength, and yet the most potent army, through some unlucky mischance, has been compelled to leave the field to a contemned adversary. "Nor yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding"--wisdom and understanding, in planning and executing schemes of aggrandizement, are the established means of success, and yet we tee in the world that the most ingenious and acute in vain strive to attain the wealth which sometimes is poured into the lap of those who have neither the wisdom judiciously to form plans of obtaining it, nor the understanding prudently to execute them. "Nor yet favour to men of skill"--honour, in general, rewards the men of skill, and yet we see that some lucky accident sometimes advances suddenly to distinction those who have not the faintest claims to it, and do not possess talents that merit distinction. "Time and chance hap[45/46]peneth to them all"--that is, unexpected events, contrary to the usual course of things, frustrate the exertions of the swift, the strong, the wise, the men of understanding, the men of skill, and give their glory to others. "The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."
Things do not always issue according to the general laws by which God governs the world. Unexpected events frustrate the regular and usual means of obtaining success. This is the truth contained in the text, and it is a truth, the consideration of which is peculiarly suited to the present circumstances in which we are placed. Let us illustrate it by a brief survey of human life, and then let us deduce from it doctrinal and practical reflections.
Behold this truth verified in the public events of the world, and in the private life of individuals.
Behold it verified in the public events of the world.
Governments have vanished, which, reared and supported by power and wealth, promised, according to all human calculation, to defy the ravages of time and the blasts of adverse fortune. The tide on which they had been borne to grandeur and renown suddenly turned, and they floated rapidly back into the gulf of oblivion. Mighty kingdoms have disappeared; neither the talents of the statesman, nor the efforts of the patriot, could save them; and to the places of grandeur and opulence from which they had fallen, nations have been advanced, whom they once proudly ranked among the meanest of their vassals. Legislators have framed consti[46/47]tutions, calculated, they hoped, to perpetuate to the latest generations the freedom and prosperity, which were thus consecrated by all the efforts of genius, of talents, and of knowledge. And yet the fairest fabrics of human polity have not lasted even till the mouldering hand of time had gradually loosened their foundations. Suddenly demolished by the violence of popular phrenzy, or the attacks of despotic power, they have crushed beneath their ruins that freedom which human wisdom had destined to be perpetual. Who does not see in these events, so contrary to the ordinary operation of human causes, and therefore so contrary to human calculation, the declaration verified--that "the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."
In those conflicts where the fate of nations is decided by the sword, we see the same truth exemplified. Armies, formidable for their numbers, and more formidable for their discipline, have sometimes been discomfited by inferior forces, and lost the fame of past victories in present disgrace and defeat. The declarations of the word of God have been verified--"an hundred has chased a thousand, and a thousand has put ten thousand to flight." [Lev. xxvi. 8.] "There is no king saved by the multitude of an host; neither is a mighty man delivered by much strength." [Psalm xxxiii. 16.] "The horse is prepared against the day of battle; but safety is of the Lord." [Prov. xxi. 31.] "The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but time and chance happeneth to them all." Behold this truth also exemplified in the issue of [47/48] those measures which are not only wisely planned, but which have in view some public meritorious object. These, in the ordinary course of God's righteous providence, we should expect would be successful, but even these are not exempt from those unforeseen and unexpected issues which frustrate the wisest plans and the most meritorious designs. Your cause may be that of truth, of justice, and of honour; the means by which you seek to advance it may be formed by wisdom and sanctioned by virtue; you may employ these means with courage, with resolution, with zeal, and with perseverance, and yet all these, though they deserve, may not procure success; knavery, impudence, cunning, and perhaps even folly, may debar you from victory. For in the mysterious course of God's providence, "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 favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."
But, my brethren, there are examples of the uncertain issue of all human plans and means, which fall more directly within the observation of each one of us, and come more immediately home to our own bosoms.
Look at those objects which are generally considered the sources of human happiness, and see whether the regular means of obtaining them are always successful.
The usual means of obtaining wealth, are industry and frugality, enterprise, prudence, zeal, and perseverance, and, as a general rule, they are successful; but still bread is not always to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding. One [48/49] man, from an early period of his life, has turned all his thoughts and studies to the acquisition of wealth; custom has fixed him in those habits favourable to its acquisition; he rises up early and sits up late, and eats the bread of carefulness; his enterprises are judiciously formed; they are pursued with industry, with zeal, and with perseverance; nor does prodigality curtail his means, or dissipate the fruit of his labours; and yet sometimes we see men of this description fail in the object of their pursuit; while some more fortunate individual, with less judgment and less exertion, finds her pouring her treasures upon him from every quarter. So frequent are such instances, that they have established the common remark, that some men succeed in all their enterprises, while others succeed in none.
Look at fame and reputation--by talents, learning, and merit, fame and reputation are usually acquired. Often, however, we see them attend boastful pretensions, obtrusive confidence, ostentatious display. The bold, the meddling, the forward, often, without real talents, push themselves into consequence; while real merit, too retiring to be ostentatious, and too modest to be bold and presuming, either languishes in obscurity, or only imperfectly obtains the estimation and fame which is its due. So true is it, that "favour is not always to men of skill."
Turn to those scenes where the liveliest feelings of the heart are awakened, and whence arise their purest joys--the scenes of domestic life. You behold these scenes sometimes furnished with every essential constituent of happiness; you behold religion consecrating, by her celestial presence, the [49/50] circle of domestic enjoyment; and yet events, which wisdom could not foresee, nor prudence avert, nor piety ward off, suddenly cloud this blissful scene. Misfortune, sickness, or death, ravages it, and leaves no traces of felicity behind. Alas! "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 favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."
Events, not according to the ordinary operation of the established laws of nature, and therefore styled accidents, and ascribed, in common language, to time and chance, frustrate the best concerted plans, disappoint the strength and wisdom of man, and impress on him his weakness and his ignorance, his dependence on a power over which he has no control.
This is the first lesson of instruction which we deduce from the doctrine contained in the text.
The varying and uncertain issue of human affairs should lead us to acknowledge and adore the providence of God.
He who doth according to his will in the armies of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth; whose hand none can stay, and unto whom none can say, What doest thou 1--He who has laid and sustains the foundations of the earth, and is Governor among the nations--He who, sitting in the heavens, extends his power over the universe, regards and regulates also the most minute events; for he "commandeth the ravens," [1 Kings xvii. 4.] he "feedeth the fouls of the air," "without him not even a sparrow falleth to the ground," and he "numbers even the hairs of our head." [Matt. x. 29, 30.] The world, bearing such evident marks of order and design, and man the noblest work that adorns it, must have proceeded from some intelligent cause. And the infinitely perfect Being who made the world, can alone preserve it; he alone can give effect to causes, and certainty and uniformity to the laws of nature. Chance is but an empty name, it has no being, it has no power; and therefore to ascribe to chance the universe and the events which happen in it, is as absurd as it is impious. To ascribe to chance the regulation of the state and destiny of man, is as gloomy and cheerless as it is false. Chance is only the term by which, in the common language of men, those events are designated which happen differently from the general operation of the laws by which God governs the world. But these unexpected and singular events, so far from being derogatory to his providence, are a powerful confirmation of it. Did human affairs proceed in an unvarying course, the uniformity of the operations of the laws of nature might lead us to forget the arm that controls and guides them: but when these laws are interrupted, and when events happen differently from the usual course of affairs, and therefore contrary to human calculation, our attention is arrested, we behold a striking display of almighty power changing or controlling the course of events; fear should fall upon us; reverence of this almighty power, thus baffling human strength, should fill our souls; they should be lifted up in adoration of the Most High God, in whose hand [51/52] are power and might; we should acknowledge that it is his inscrutable providence which takes the "race from the swift, and the battle from the strong," and which allots "time and chance to all."
And hence, also, we learn a lesson of dependence.
If the events of things were not usually according to known and established laws, if the use of means did not generally eventuate in the attainment of the end, enterprise would be discouraged, industry would relax her efforts, and the business of the world would be at a stand. But, on the contrary, lest men, perceiving the uniform success of their plans and efforts, should forget him, of whom are all man's goings; lest, perceiving the end, always following the means employed by them, they should grow insolent and haughty, and say it was their "own power and the might of their own hand that got them this wealth," and "forget the Lord their Maker," it pleases God sometimes to change the ordinary operations of causes. [Deut. 8.17.]
"Let not then the wise man glory in his wisdom; let not the rich man glory in his riches; neither let the mighty man glory in his might." [Jer. ix. 28.] Riches, wisdom, and might are often defeated and made to vanish before the breath of the Most High. All that we call natural causes are the instruments of his pleasure, and he applies them all to the purposes of his will. What a powerful motive then have we to serve him, who can raise up or bring low, who can save or who can destroy, who can prosper or defeat all our plans! What a powerful motive then have we to fear him, who can make natural [52/53] causes the instruments of his displeasure! He holds in his hand the fire and the famine, the sword and the pestilence, the storm and the earthquake. And he can make "the heavens over our heads brass, and the earth under our feet iron," and the very beasts of the field to rise up against us. [Deut. xxviii. 23.] Him, therefore, let us fear; let us ascribe to him whatever gifts of fortune, of talent, or of honour, distinguish us, and be humble; using these gifts as his stewards, and so employing them, that we may render our account to him with joy. Let us look to him to bless and prosper all our plans and all our efforts. When they are successful, let us give to him the glory, and praise him; when they fail, let us adore him who chastens and afflicts us for our good, and turn from our sins by repentance. Yes, my brethren, repentance is the lesson which his judgments, which are now abroad in the earth, which have visited our land, should teach us. [Preached during the war of 1812.] Repentance, bringing forth the fruits of righteousness, is the lesson impressed on us by the services of this day.
It is a truth, certain as the holiness and justice of God, that though, in the present world, there is one lot to the righteous and to the wicked--"time and chance happen to all"--yet a day is coming, when God will judge the world in righteousness; when he will make an eternal separation between the righteous and the wicked, between him who serveth God and him who serveth him not; when to the former he will award glory, and honour, and immortality, and punish the latter with everlasting destruction from his presence.
 Finally. From the doctrine contained in the text, that unexpected accidents frustrate the regular and usual means of obtaining success, we deduce the uncertainty of all human enjoyments; and hence we learn the wisdom of pursuing those spiritual joys which are beyond the reach of accident and misfortune. All worldly means may fail us; we cannot, therefore, be sure of obtaining worldly joys. Even when attained, all human efforts to preserve them may prove ineffectual. Are then all the pursuits of man liable to uncertainty? and are all his joys thus insecure? No--those pursuits which promote the perfection of our being, those joys which arise from the favour of our God, are not exposed to "time and chance." In regard to these, it is a law pronounced by God, and unchanging in its operation--"Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened." [Matt. vii. 7.] To the guilty sons of men it was pronounced by their Saviour himself, as an unchangeable promise--"Him that cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out." [John vi. 37.]
Here then, man, tossed on the uncertain waves of this troublesome world, thou shalt find rest. The mercy of thy Saviour, the favour of God, the glories of heaven, these afford joys that last for ever; the means of attaining these are certain and effectual. Seek ye then the Lord now, for he can now be found; call ye upon him now, for he is now near; to-morrow he may swear in his wrath that ye shall not enter into his rest. Turn then from your sins by repentance, live in the fear and service of him who rules in heaven and in earth; and then you [54/55] need not fear, though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be cast into the midst of the sea; for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth, and he hath promised to be the strength of his people, and their portion for ever.
Yes, Christians! the means of attaining the prize of glory, through the mercy of God, are in your hands; faithfully use them, and success is certain. Here the race is to the swift, and the battle to the strong. In proportion to your efforts in the Christian life, will be your progress here, and your felicity hereafter. Wait then upon God your Saviour, and ye shall renew your strength. Wait upon him especially in that ordinance where he offers his body and his blood to be the spiritual nourishment and strength of his people. Ah! what prospect of attaining the prize of glory can they haw, who refuse that divine strength which alone can ensure them victory? O Christians! your Saviour at his holy table now offers you spiritual strength, pardon, peace, immortality. [Preached on occasion of administering the holy communion.] Go, penitent, believing and obedient, and you shall receive a title to a felicity, which, exalted infinitely above the attacks of that time and chance to which all sublunary joys are exposed, will flourish for ever in the presence of him who is the hope of his people, the Saviour of all them that believe.