Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked? (Ecclesiastes 7:13)
This excerpt is a bit longer that what I am accustomed to posting here, but it is worthwhile. In his commentary on Ecclesiastes, Philip Graham Ryken provides a brief biography of the great Puritan Thomas Boston. He then discusses his life in light of his classic sermon, “The Crook in the Lot” which was prepared shortly before his death. For anyone suffering the frustration of life in a fallen world, this will encourage your heart. It also highlights the difference between the despair of fatalism and the hope that is found in the Sovereignty of a God who is working all things together for our good.
“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 perhaps also 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, kjv). 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 his time of trial, he turned toward 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?”
Here the Preacher 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 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 we could change but cannot alter. This 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 that we wish we could change. Boston continues:
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 we can do about it. It all comes down to fate, or maybe predestination. Therefore, this passage is about “the powerlessness of human beings over against God”—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 of Calvinism! In other words, the Preacher is 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.”
“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).”
Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word, Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, Wheaton: Crossway, 2010, pages 162-166. (Logos)
Click here to read Thomas Boston’s The Crook in the Lot in it’s entirety.