The Crook in the Lot: Part I

The Crook in the Lot: Part I

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. [1]  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."  [2] 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 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 Sam. 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." [3]

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. [4]  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?"


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. [5]

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" [6] --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." [7]

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" (Eccles. 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" (Eccles. 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." [8]

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." [9]

[1] See Philip Graham Ryken, Thomas Boston as Preacher of the Fourfold State, Rutherford Studies in Historical Theology (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1999).
[2] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. John E. Smith (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957), 2:489.
[3] Thomas Boston, The Complete Works of the Late Rev. Thomas Boston of Ettrick, ed. by Samuel M'Millan, 12 vols (London, 1853; repr. Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, 1980), 12:205.
[4] Thomas Boston, The Crook in the Lot, in Complete Works, 3:495-590.
[5] Boston, The Crook in the Lot, 3:499.
[6] John Jarick, quoted in Tremper Longman, III, The Book of Ecclesiastes, New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 191. 
[7] Boston, The Crook in the Lot, 3:498.
[8] Martin Luther, "Notes on Ecclesiastes," in Luther's Works, trans. and ed. by Jaroslav Pelikan, 56 vols. (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1972), 15:120.
[9] Richard Baxter, quoted in Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1976), 68.

Philip Ryken is the Senior Minister at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, PA.


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