By Spencer D Gear PhD
Does the Bible teach a doctrine of chance in Ecclesiastes 9:11? This verse reads:
“I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all” (NIV).
“I have observed something else under the sun. The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time” (NLT).
“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” (ESV).
“I 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 the skillful; for time and chance overtake them all” (NASB).
“Again, I observed this on the earth: the race is not always won by the swiftest, the battle is not always won by the strongest; prosperity does not always belong to those who are the wisest, wealth does not always belong to those who are the most discerning, nor does success always come to those with the most knowledge–for time and chance may overcome them all” (NET).
Is this a message only for the Israelites? How can “time and chance happen to all” (ESV) or “overtake them all” (NASB)? The contemporary understanding of chance, in a universe controlled by the Sovereign Lord, do not harmonise.
Don Partain explained the meaning of “time and chance”:
“I 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.” Ecclesiastes 9:11
The writer of Ecclesiastes (who appears to be Solomon) emphasizes how quickly passing, uncertain, and even unfair earthlife is—it’s “vanity.” He doesn’t do this to depress us, but to stress how important it is to live for values and goals that are eternal—and not just be living for earthly pleasure, knowledge, our work, etc.
If we do choose to just live for earthly goals and pleasures as our ultimate goals, we are going to be sorely disappointed—not only after this life is over, but even during this life on earth. You will be disappointed over and over and over!
Here in 9:11, Solomon illustrates how earthlife often just isn’t fair! He says, “the race is not to the swift”—but, it should be, shouldn’t it? In other words, if you are the fastest runner in a race, isn’t it right and fair that you win—and not the slowest runner? And yet, the fastest runner might get “accidentally” bumped off the track, and even injure himself so that he can’t even finish the race. It does happen upon this earth.
Same thing is true about the rest of the statements: “the battle is not to the warriors”. That is, by all rights, the warriors should win the battle—not the on-lookers. But sometimes, the latter are the winners. “The bread” should be to the wise—and “wealth” should be the claim of the “discerning.” But sometimes, fools destroy the fields of the wise, and they extort wealth from them. Lastly, “men of ability” should be the ones winning the favor of those who can employ them. But sometimes, those of little—or no—ability win out instead, by their bribery.
“Time and chance” are things none of us can either know or control. And, they often end up resulting in things that are just not fair.
But, no surprise: as Genesis 3 tells us, we are living upon a cursed earth—and it’s a dead-end, in itself. But it’s a moral and spiritual character builder if we live it by God’s direction, seeking His help, with eternal life with Him in our sights: “The conclusion is, ‘Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole of man’”. Ecclesiastes 12:13 (What does the Bible mean when it says that “time and chance happen to them all”? Ecclesiastes 9:11, Quora.)
“Time and chance” are not to be seen as above the powers and reign of God. We know this because they are things “under the sun,” under God’s control. This is indicated by the use of the singular verb, yikreh, which combines them into one compact idea, as in Isa 13:22 (judgment) and Ezek 7:7 (God’s activity). Chance (pega) is also in 1 Kings 5:28 (in the Hebrew Bible), v. 4 English Bible. It is derived from the verb meaning “to meet.” It usually has the connotation of evil as in “evil occurrence” (1 Kings 5:4).
In summary, people may have resources at their disposal to bring victory in events but God causes things to transpire (‘by chance’) that overthrow the enemy. “Time and chance” are events that happen “under the sun” but they are always under the control of Almighty God. A chance lottery is never something that happens with God.
 The Oxford English Dictionary defines chance as, “A possibility of something happening,” (2021. chance), https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/chance (Accessed 12 December 2021.)
Copyright © 2021 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 12 December 2021.