The Crook in the Lot
The Crook in the Lot
One of the first people that I hope to meet in heaven is the Scottish theologian Thomas Boston, who was the subject of my doctoral research in church history. I admire the man for the depth of his theology. Jonathan Edwards said that Boston's work on the covenants distinguished him as a "truly great divine." I also admire for the breadth of his writing: twelve thick volumes on almost every doctrine of the Christian faith, taught from every book of the Bible. I admire Thomas Boston even more for his faithfulness as a pastor over twenty-five years in the same rural parish. But I admire him most of all for his perseverance through suffering.
Thomas Boston was a melancholy man, prone to seasons of discouragement in the Christian life. He was often in poor health, even though he never missed his turn in the pulpit. His wife suffered from chronic illness of the body, and most likely the mind. But perhaps the couple's greatest trial was the death of their children: they lost six of their ten babies.
One loss was especially tragic. Boston had already lost a son named Ebenezer, which in the Bible means "Hitherto hath the Lord helped us" (1 Samuel 7:12). When his wife gave birth to another son, he considered naming the new child Ebenezer as well. Yet the minister hesitated. Naming the boy Ebenezer would be a testimony of hope in the faithfulness of God. But what if this child died, too, and the family had to bury another Ebenezer? That would be a loss too bitter to bear. By faith Boston decided to name his son Ebenezer. Yet the child was sickly, and despite the urgent prayers of his parents, he never recovered. As the grieving father wrote in his Memoirs, "It pleased the Lord that he also was removed from me."
After suffering such a heavy loss, many people would be tempted to accuse God of wrongdoing, or to abandon their faith, or at least to drop out of ministry for a while. But that is not what Thomas Boston did. He believed in the goodness as well as in the sovereignty of God. So rather than turning away from the Lord in times of trial, he turned towards the Lord for help and comfort.
Boston's perseverance through suffering is worthy not only of our admiration, but also of our imitation. One way to learn from his example is to read his classic sermon on the sovereignty of God, which is one of the last things he prepared for publication before he died. Boston called his sermon "The Crook in the Lot." It was based on the command and the question that we read in Ecclesiastes 7:13: "Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?"
Good days, bad days
The command in this verse is a call to a careful observation of the way that God works. The man who wrote Ecclesiastes—the Preacher who called himself Qoheleth and who may well have been King Solomon himself—took careful notice of the world around him. He studied the seasons of life, learning when it was time for this and time for that. He watched the way people worked and played. He saw how they lived and how they died. Here in chapter seven he invites us to consider God's work in the world. Then he asks a rhetorical question: Who has the power to straighten out what God has made crooked? The answer, of course, is no one. Things are the way that God wants them to be; we do not have the ability to overrule the Almighty.
When the Preacher talks about something "crooked," he is not referring to something that is morally out of line, as if God could ever be the author of evil. Instead, he is talking about some trouble or difficulty in life we wish that we could change, but cannot alter. It happens to all of us. We struggle with the physical limitations of our bodies. We suffer the breakdown of personal or family relationships. We have something that we wish we did not have, or do not have something that we wish we did. Sooner or later, there is something in life that we wish to God had a different shape to it. What is the one thing that you would change in your life, if you had the power to change it?
According to Ecclesiastes, God has given each of us a different situation in life. Thomas Boston explained it like this: "There is a certain train or course of events, by the providence of God, falling to every one of us during our life in this world: and that is our lot, as being allotted to us by the sovereign God." We all have our own lot in life. Furthermore, we all have things in life we wish that we could change. To quote again from Thomas Boston:
In that train or course of events, some fall out cross to us, and against the grain; and these make the crook in our lot. While we are here, there will be cross events, as well as agreeable ones, in our lot and condition. Sometimes things are softly and agreeably gliding on; but, by and by, there is some incident which alters that course, grates us, and pains us …. Every body's lot in this world has some crook in it …. There is no perfection here, no lot out of heaven without a crook.
When some people hear Ecclesiastes say this, they assume that the Preacher is being fatalistic. Some things are straight in life; other things are crooked. But whether they are crooked or straight, there is absolutely nothing that you can do about it. It all comes down to fate, or maybe predestination. So this passage is about "the powerlessness of human beings over against God," as John Jarick says—a powerlessness that can only lead to fatalism.
There is another way to look at these verses, however: not as an expression of fatalism, but as the Preacher telling us that whether things seem crooked or straight, we need to see our situation in terms of the sovereignty of God. According to Thomas Boston, if God is the one who made the crook in our lot, then we need to see that crook as the work of God, which it is vain for us to try to change. "What God sees meet to mar," we "will not be able to mend." "This view of the matter," said Boston, "is a proper means, at once to silence and satisfy men, and so to bring them unto a dutiful submission to their Maker and Governor, under the crook in their lot."
One way to see the difference between the despair of fatalism and the hope of Calvinism is to compare Ecclesiastes 7:13 to what the Preacher said back at the beginning, in Ecclesiastes 1:15. The wording of that verse is almost identical: "What is crooked cannot be made straight." But the first time the Preacher said that, he was leaving God out of the picture. He was looking at the world without God and telling us how meaningless it all is. But here in chapter seven he brings God back into the picture; he is looking at the world according to God; he is putting both the straight things and the crooked things in life under the sovereignty of God.
It is still true, of course, that there is nothing we can do to straighten out what is crooked. We cannot change what God has done unless and until God wants to change it. We are under the power of the sovereign and omnipotent ruler of the entire universe. We do not have the power to edit his plan for our lives. But far from driving us to despair, the sovereignty of God gives us hope through all the trials of life. We do suffer the frustration of life in a fallen world. But the Bible says that we suffer these things by the will of a God who is planning to set us free from all this futility, and who is working all things together for our good (see Romans 8:20, 28).
Trusting in the sovereign goodness of God helps us know how to respond to all the joys and trials of life. Whether we are having a good day or a bad day, there is always a way for us to glorify God. So the Preacher says: "In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him" (7:14).
By saying this, the Book of Ecclesiastes puts today and every day under the sovereignty of God. Some days are full of prosperity. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and all is right with the world. There is food on the table and money in the bank. If there is work to do, it is the kind of work that you enjoy doing. If you are taking the day off, you get to spend it the way that you want to spend it, with the people you love. Every day like that is a gift from God that calls us to be joyful. Here the Preacher celebrates the kind of meaningful hedonism that he has talked about several times already. Every fine day, every good meal, every financial windfall, every meaningful conversation, every pleasurable experience, every success in ministry—every blessing of any kind at all—is another reason to return praise and thanks to God. To be joyful is to find our fundamental satisfaction in God, and then to receive every pleasure in life as a gift of his grace.
Not every day is like that, of course. Some days are full of adversity rather than prosperity. The sun is not shining, the birds are not singing, and nothing seems right with the world. There may be food on the table, but there is no money in the bank. Work is a chore; vacation is boring; and you may feel as if you do not have even one single friend in the world. Yet this day too is a day that comes from the hand of God, a day that is under his sovereign control. The Preacher does not have the heart to tell us to be joyful on such a difficult day, but he does call us to a wise consideration of the ways of God. When adversity comes, recognize that this too is a day that the Lord has made. "Shall we receive good from God," Job asked on the day of his adversity, "and shall we not receive evil?" (Job 2:10). No, we should acknowledge that both the good days and the bad days come from the hand of God.
The Preacher says further that it is impossible for us to know what will happen in the future. Given what he said at the beginning of verse 14, we might assume that the righteous people are the ones that prosper, while the wicked always suffer adversity. Yet sometimes exactly the opposite occurs: the righteous suffer adversity, while the ungodly prosper. Thus it is impossible for us to predict what will happen in coming days. As the Preacher says, "man may not find out anything that will be after him" (7:14). We have no way of knowing whether the coming days will bring us greater prosperity or more adversity.
Living with this kind of uncertainty need not cause us anxiety or despair; rather, it should teach us to leave our future in the hands of God. Most of us would prefer to control our own destiny. Instead, we should entrust our lives to the loving care of our sovereign God. If we do this, we will be well prepared for both the good days and the bad days. In his comments on this verse, Martin Luther gave the following pastoral advice: "Enjoy the things that are present in such a way that you do not base your confidence on them, as though they were going to last forever … but reserve part of our heart for God, so that with it we can bear the day of adversity."
This is all part of what it means to "consider the work of God." When the Preacher tells us to "consider," he is telling us to do something more than simply see what God has done. He is telling us to accept what God has done and surrender to his sovereign will. He is telling us to praise God for all our prosperity and trust God through every adversity. The Puritan Richard Baxter said it well:
Take what He gives,
And praise Him still,
Through good or ill,
Who ever lives.
Two dangers that lead to destruction
It is one thing to say that we believe in the sovereignty of God, but another thing to live that out in a world that often seems meaningless. No sooner has the Preacher told us to consider the works of God than he struggles with some of the implications of God's sovereignty.
Remember, the Preacher is totally committed to telling us the truth about life, in all its vanity. Here he tells us that sometimes life seems desperately unfair. "In my vain life I have seen everything," he says. "There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing" (7:15).
This is the exactly the opposite of what most people would expect in a world that is governed by a good and righteous God. The righteous people are the ones who ought to rejoice in their prosperity, while the wicked suffer adversity until finally they are forced to admit that God is in control. All too often, what we see instead is what the Preacher saw: righteous people dying before their time, while the ungodly keep on living.
This paradox almost seems to contradict what the Bible says in other places. God told his people that if they did what he said, he would bless them with long life in the land of promise (see Deuteronomy 4:40). He also threatened to punish his enemies with death for their disobedience. But sometimes things are not the way they are supposed to be. Godly pastors are martyred for their faith, while their enemies live to terrorize the church another day. Innocent victims get cut down in the prime of life; their killers get convicted, but instead of dying, they get life in prison. It's just not fair!
These injustices are some of the crooked things in life that we wish we could straighten out. But knowing that we cannot do this, the Preacher gives us some practical advice: "Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?" (7:16-17).
Some scholars believe that these verses are cynical, and maybe they are. Maybe the Preacher is saying something like this: "Look, if the righteous perish, while the wicked live to prosper, then why be good? Take my advice: don't try to be a goody two-shoes. I'm not telling you to be evil, of course. It would be foolish to tempt fate by living a wicked life. I'm just saying that if only the good die young, then there is nothing to be gained by trying to be good."
On this interpretation, the Preacher is advising "a kind of middle-of-the-road approach to life, not overzealous about wisdom or foolishness, righteousness or wickedness" (Tremper Longman). This kind of reasoning would have been right at home with the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, who often advocated a life of moderation. Do not be too good, or too evil, they said. Too much piety or too much iniquity will lead to an early grave. This also happens to be the way that many people think today. They know better than to live a life of total wickedness, because deep down they believe that God will judge people for their sins. Yet secretly they suspect that trying to be holy will take all of the fun out of life. Generally speaking, they try to be good, and they hope that they are good enough to get by God on the Day of Judgment. But their consciences are troubled too little by their sins. As long as they are not overly righteous, or overly wicked, they are happy the way they are.
If that is what the Preacher means, then he must be looking at life under the sun again, leaving God out of the picture for the moment and thinking about good and evil the way that only an unbeliever can.
There is another alternative, however. When he tells us not to be "overly righteous," he might be telling us not to be self-righteous. Grammatically speaking, the form of the verb that the Preacher uses in verse 16 may refer to someone who is only pretending to be righteous and playing the wise man. In that case, the person the Preacher has in mind is too righteous by half. He does not have the true holiness that comes by faith, but the hypocritical holiness that comes by works.
After all, if God's standard is perfection—if we are called to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength—then how could anyone ever be "overly righteous"? No, our real problem is thinking that we are more righteous than we really are. Somehow there never seems to be any shortage of people who think that they are good enough for God.
All of this leads H. C. Leupold to suspect that a "peculiar type of righteousness was beginning to manifest itself in Israel, an overstrained righteousness which lost sight of the ever-present sinful imperfections of men and felt strongly inclined to argue with God and to find fault with Him because He was apparently not rewarding those righteous men as they deemed they deserved to be rewarded."
In response, the Preacher warns us not to be self-righteous. We should not think that trying to be more righteous will save us on the Day of Judgment. Nor should we think that we are so righteous that we do not deserve to suffer any adversity, that it is unfair for someone like us ever to have a crook in our lot. When we think too highly of ourselves, resting on our own righteousness, then it is easy for us to say, "I don't deserve to be treated like this. Doesn't God know who I am?" It is also a very short step from saying that to saying, "Who does God think he is?" So the Preacher cautions us not to be, as it were, "too righteous." In saying this, he is warning against a conceited righteousness that "stands ready to challenge God for His failure to reward" us as much as we think we deserve (H. C. Leupold).
That is not to say that we should be unrighteous, of course. The Preacher warns against this mistake in verse 17, when he tells us not to be too wicked. His point is not that it is okay for us to be a little bit wicked, as if there were some acceptable level of iniquity. When it comes to sin, even a little is too much. His point, rather, is that there is great danger in giving ourselves over to evil. It is one thing to sin from time to time, as everyone does. The Preacher will say as much in verse 20: "Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins." But there is a world of difference between committing the occasional sin and making a deliberate decision to pursue a lifestyle of theft, deception, lust, and greed. "Don't be a fool," the Preacher is saying. "If you live in sin, you will perish."
So there are two dangers. One is a temptation for the religious person: self-righteousness. The other is even more of a temptation for the non-religious person: unrighteousness. Both of these errors will lead to destruction; they may even lead to an untimely death. But there is also a way to avoid both of these dangers, and that is to live in the fear of God. The Preacher says: "It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them" (7:18).
This verse is difficult to understand, but when the Preacher tells us to "take hold of this" and not to withhold our hand "from that," he is referring back to the advice that he gave in verses 16 and 17. According to Michael A. Eaton, the Preacher is saying something like this: "The right life walks the path between two extremes, shunning self-righteousness, but not allowing one's native wickedness to run its own course." When we do this, we will avoid the death and destruction that will surely befall us if we live sinfully and self-righteously.
To say this more simply, the right way for us to live is in the fear of God. Notice in verse 18 that the person who "fears God" will escape the dangers of death and destruction. The fear of God is one of the great themes of the second half of Ecclesiastes, as the book moves from the vanity of life to the fear of its Creator. When we get to the end of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher will tell us to "fear God and keep his commandments" (12:13). Here he tells us to fear God and escape the coming judgment.
To fear God is to revere God. It is to know that he is God and we are not. It is to hold him in awe for his majestic beauty. It is to have respect for his mighty and awesome power. When we have the true and proper fear of God, it will help us not to be so self-righteous. We will know that God sees us as we really are, and this will teach us not to pretend to be something that what we are not. The fear of God will also keep us from living a wicked life, because when we understand his holiness, the last thing we will want to do is fall under this judgment.
Why God allows suffering
This passage began with a call to consider the work of God. As we contemplate the way that he works in the world, he teaches us the right way to live. We learn to praise God for prosperity and trust God through adversity. We learn to live a God-fearing life that is free from wickedness and self-righteousness. Those are lessons it takes a lifetime to learn. But maybe the hardest lesson of all is the one with which we began in verse 13: learning to look beyond our present difficulties and see the work of God, accepting all of the crooked things in life until he chooses to make them straight.
At the beginning of this chapter we encountered Thomas Boston and his sermon on Ecclesiastes 7:13. Boston ended that sermon by listing some of the many reasons why God makes some things crooked. These were biblical lessons that he had confirmed through his own experience of grief and pain—lessons about the sovereign purposes of God that can help us in our own suffering. Why does God make some things crooked, even when we pray for him to make them straight?
First, said Boston, the crooked things in life are a test to help us determine whether we really are trusting in Christ for our salvation. Think of Job, for example, who was afflicted with many painful trials in order to prove the genuineness of his faith. Our own sufferings have the same purpose: by the grace of God, they confirm that we are holding onto Christ. Or perhaps they reveal exactly the opposite, that we have never fully trusted in Christ at all, but still need to trust him for our salvation.
Second, whatever crooks there are in our earthly lot turn our hearts away from this vain world and teach us to look for happiness in the life to come. Suffering is part of our preparation for eternity. Consider the Prodigal Son, who did not head back home to his father until he lost everything he had. When something in your life seems crooked, remember that day is coming when God will make it straight.
Third, the crooked things in life convict us of our sins. The reason that anything is crooked at all is because there is sin in the world, including our own sin. The Holy Spirit often uses the crooks in our lot to touch our conscience, reminding us of some particular sin that we need to confess. Remember Joseph's brothers. When things went badly for them in Egypt, they thought at once of their guilt before God for selling their brother into slavery, many years before (see Genesis 42:21). It would be a mistake to think every time we suffer that it must be because of our sins. But it would also be a mistake to miss the opportunity that every suffering brings to repent for any unconfessed sin.
Fourth, the crooked things in life may correct us for our sins. There are times when suffering serves as an instrument of God's justice, as a punishment for our sin. So it was for David, after he had murdered Uriah: the sword never departed from his house (see 2 Samuel 12:10). When we suffer, it may be that as a consequence for our sin we are under the judgment or the discipline of God.
These are not the only reasons why God makes some things crooked. Thomas Boston listed several others. Sometimes God allows us to suffer in order to keep us from committing a sin, or else to uncover a sinful attitude of the heart so deep that it could only be revealed by suffering a painful trial. Or maybe—and this is the happiest reason of all—God puts a crook into our lot in order to display his grace in our godliness. We are prone to what Boston called "fits of spiritual laziness," in which our graces lie dormant. But when we have a crook in our lot, it rouses from our spiritual slumber and produces "many acts of faith, hope, love, self-denial, resignation, and other graces."
The Shepherd's crook
The point of listing these possible reasons for our suffering is not to suggest that we can always figure out why God has put some particular crook in our lot. The point rather is that God knows why he has put it there. When something in life seems crooked, we are usually very quick to tell him how to straighten it out. Instead, we should let God straighten us out! In his sovereignty over our suffering, God is hard at work to accomplish our real spiritual good, not just in one way, but in many ways. Therefore, we are called to trust in him, even for the things that seem crooked.
Whenever we are having trouble doing that, the first thing we should do is consider the work of our Savior. Remember that our Good Shepherd once had a crook in his lot—a crook that came in the shape of a cross. In his prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked his Father if there was any way to make Calvary straight instead of crooked. But there was no other way. As Jesus considered the work of God, he could see that the only way to make atonement for his people's sin was to die in our place. So Jesus suffered the crooked cross that it was his God-given lot to bear. And he trusted his Father, waiting for him to straighten things out when the time was right by raising him up on the third day.
If God could straighten out something as crooked as the cross, then surely he can be trusted to do something with the crook in your lot! This was the testimony that James Montgomery Boice gave the last time he spoke to his congregation at Philadelphia's Tenth Presbyterian Church. Dr. Boice had been diagnosed with a fatal and aggressive cancer; he only had weeks to live. This was the crook in his lot. So Dr. Boice raised a question that was based on the sovereignty and the goodness of God. "If God does something in your life," he asked, "would you change it?" To say this the way that Qoheleth would have said it, "If God gave you something crooked, would you make it straight?"
Well, would you? Would you change your disability or disease? Would you change your job or your finances? Would you change your appearance, or your abilities, or your situation in life? Or would you trust God for all the crooked things in life and wait for him to make them straight, just like Jesus did when he died for you on the cross?
Dr. Boice answered his own rhetorical question by testifying to the goodness of God's sovereign will. He said that if we tried to change what God has done, then it wouldn't be as good; we would only make it worse. The Preacher who wrote Ecclesiastes said something similar. "Consider the work of God," he said. "Do not try to straighten out what God has made crooked." Our Savior would tell us the same thing. "When you consider the work of God," he would say, "remember my love for you through the crooked cross and trust our Father to straighten everything out in his own good time."
Philip Ryken is president of Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.